Book: Steven jay schneider



Steven jay schneider

1001 MOVIES

YOU MUST SEE BEFORE YOU DIE

GENERAL EDITOR

STEVEN JAY SCHNEIDER








Steven jay schneider








A Quintessence Book

Published in Great Britain by Cassell Illustrated


A division of Octopus Publishing Group Limited


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This eBook first published in 2011


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ISBN-13: 978 184403 697 4


QSS.FIL8

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Steven jay schneider

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SERIES


CONTENTS

Preface

Introduction

1900s

Le Voyage Dans La Lune (1902)

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

1910s

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Les Vampires (1915)

Intolerance (1916)

Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari (1919)

Broken Blossoms (1919)

1920s

Way Down East (1920)

Within Our Gates (1920)

Körkarlen (1921)

Orphans of The Storm (1921)

La Souriante Madame Beudet (1922)

Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922)

Nanook of The North (1922)

Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens (1922)

Häxan (1923)

Foolish Wives (1923)

Our Hospitality (1923)

La Roue (1923)

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Stachka (1924)

Greed (1924)

Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

Der Letzte Mann (1924)

Seven Chances (1925)

The Phantom of The Opera (1925)

Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925)

The Gold Rush (1925)

The Big Parade (1925)

Metropolis (1927)

Sunrise (1927)

The General (1927)

The Unknown (1927)

Oktyabr (1927)

The Jazz Singer (1927)

Napoléon (1927)

The Kid Brother (1927)

The Crowd (1928)

The Docks of New York (1928)

Un Chien Andalou (1928)

La Passion De Jeanne D’arc (1928)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Potomok Chingis-Khana (1928)

Blackmail (1929)

Chelovek S Kinoapparatom (1929)

Die Büchse Der Pandora (1929)

1930s

Der Blaue Engel (1930)

L’âge D’or (1930)

Zemlya (1930)

Little Caesar (1930)

All Quiet on The Western Front (1930)

à Nous La Liberté (1931)

Le Million (1931)

Tabu (1931)

Dracula (1931)

Frankenstein (1931)

City Lights (1931)

The Public Enemy (1931)

M (1931)

La Chienne (1931)

Vampyr (1932)

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux (1932)

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Trouble In Paradise (1932)

Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932)

Shanghai Express (1932)

Freaks (1932)

Me and My Gal (1932)

Zéro De Conduite (1933)

42nd Street (1933)

Footlight Parade (1933)

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

Duck Soup (1933)

Queen Christina (1933)

Las Hurdes (1933)

King Kong (1933)

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

Sons of The Desert (1933)

It’s a Gift (1934)

Triumph Des Willens (1934)

L’atalante (1934)

The Black Cat (1934)

Judge Priest (1934)

It Happened One Night (1934)

The Thin Man (1934)

Captain Blood (1935)

Mutiny on The Bounty (1935)

A Night at The Opera (1935)

The 39 Steps (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Top Hat (1935)

Une Partie De Campagne (1936)

Modern Times (1936)

Swing Time (1936)

My Man Godfrey (1936)

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Camille (1936)

Sabotage (1936)

Dodsworth (1936)

Things to Come (1936)

Le Roman D’un Tricheur (1936)

Captains Courageous (1937)

Ye Ban Ge Sheng (1937)

La Grande Illusion (1937)

Stella Dallas (1937)

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Snow White and The Seven Dwarves (1937)

The Awful Truth (1937)

Pépé Le Moko (1937)

Jezebel (1938)

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Olympia (1938)

La Femme Du Boulanger (1938)

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Stagecoach (1939)

Zangiku Monogatari (1939)

Babes In Arms (1939)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Gone with The Wind (1939)

Le Jour Se Lève (1939)

Gunga Din (1939)

Ninotchka (1939)

La Règle Du Jeu (1939)

Wuthering Heights (1939)

1940s

His Girl Friday (1940)

Rebecca (1940)

Fantasia (1940)

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Pinocchio (1940)

The Mortal Storm (1940)

The Bank Dick (1940)

Citizen Kane (1941)

The Lady Eve (1941)

The Wolf Man (1941)

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Sergeant York (1941)

Dumbo (1941)

High Sierra (1941)

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

Now, Voyager (1942)

Casablanca (1942)

To be or Not to be (1942)

Cat People (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Meshes of The Afternoon (1943)

Fires Were Started (1943)

The Man In Grey (1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

The Seventh Victim (1943)

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Ossessione (1943)

Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

To Have and Have Not (1944)

Laura (1944)

Gaslight (1944)

Henry V (1944)

Ivan The Terrible, Parts One and Two (1944)

Double Indemnity (1944)

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

The Battle of San Pietro (1945)

Spellbound (1945)

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Les Enfants Du Paradis (1945)

Roma, Città Aperta (1945)

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Detour (1945)

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)

Brief Encounter (1945)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Paisà (1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

My Darling Clementine (1946)

The Stranger (1946)

La Belle Et La Bête (1946)

The Big Sleep (1946)

The Killers (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Great Expectations (1946)

Notorious (1946)

Black Narcissus (1946)

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Gilda (1946)

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Out of The Past (1947)

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

Odd Man Out (1947)

Ladri Di Biciclette (1948)

Letter from An Unknown Woman (1948)

Secret Beyond The Door (1948)

Force of Evil (1948)

Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun (1948)

Red River (1948)

Rope (1948)

The Snake Pit (1948)

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

The Paleface (1948)

The Red Shoes (1948)

The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (1948)

Louisiana Story (1948)

The Heiress (1949)

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Gun Crazy (1949)

Adam’s Rib (1949)

Whisky Galore! (1949)

White Heat (1949)

The Reckless Moment (1949)

The Third Man (1949)

On The Town (1949)

1950s

Orphée (1950)

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Rashomon (1950)

Winchester ‘73 (1950)

Rio Grande (1950)

All About Eve (1950)

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Los Olvidados (1950)

In a Lonely Place (1950)

The Big Carnival (1951)

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Strangers on a Train (1951)

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

Pandora and The Flying Dutchman (1951)

The African Queen (1951)

Journal D’un Curé De Campagne (1951)

An American In Paris (1951)

A Place In The Sun (1951)

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Quiet Man (1952)

Jeux Interdits (1952)

Angel Face (1952)

Singin’ In The Rain (1952)

Ikiru (1952)

Europa ‘51 (1952)

The Bad and The Beautiful (1952)

The Big Sky (1952)

High Noon (1952)

Umberto D (1952)

Le Carrosse D’or (1953)

The Bigamist (1953)

The Band Wagon (1953)

Madame De . . . (1953)

From Here to Eternity (1953)

Tokyo Story (1953)

Roman Holiday (1953)

Le Salaire De La Peur (1953)

The Naked Spur (1953)

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

The Big Heat (1953)

Les Vacances De M. Hulot (1953)

Viaggio In Italia (1953)

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

Shane (1953)

Beat The Devil (1953)

Johnny Guitar (1954)

On The Waterfront (1954)

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

Les Diaboliques (1954)

Animal Farm (1954)

Rear Window (1954)

A Star is Born (1954)

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

La Strada (1954)

Shichinin No Samurai (1954)

Senso (1954)

Silver Lode (1954)

Carmen Jones (1954)

Sanshô Dayû (1954)

Salt of The Earth (1954)

Artists and Models (1955)

Guys and Dolls (1955)

Pather Panchali (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Les Maîtres Fous (1955)

Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (1955)

The Ladykillers (1955)

Marty (1955)

Ordet (1955)

Bob Le Flambeur (1955)

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

The Man from Laramie (1955)

Rebel without a Cause (1955)

The Phenix City Story (1955)

Sommarnattens Leende (1955)

Nuit Et Brouillard (1955)

The Night of The Hunter (1955)

Lola Montès (1955)

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Biruma No Tategoto (1956)

The Searchers (1956)

Un Condamné à Mort S’est échappé Ou Le Vent Souffle Où Il Veut (1956)

Written on The Wind (1956)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Giant (1956)

All That Heaven Allows (1956)

Invasion of The Body Snatchers (1956)

The Wrong Man (1956)

Bigger Than Life (1956)

High Society (1956)

The Ten Commandments (1956)

12 Angry Men (1957)

Det Sjunde Inseglet (1957)

An Affair to Remember (1957)

Smultronstället (1957)

Le Notti Di Cabiria (1957)

Kumonosu Jo (1957)

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Aparajito (1957)

Gunfight at The Ok Corral (1957)

The Bridge on The River Kwai (1957)

Bharat Mata (1957)

Letjat Zhuravli (1957)

Paths of Glory (1957)

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Man of The West (1958)

Touch of Evil (1958)

Bab El Hadid (1958)

Gigi (1958)

The Defiant Ones (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

Popiól I Diament (1958)

Dracula (1958)

Mon Oncle (1958)

Jalsaghar (1958)

Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959)

North by Northwest (1959)

Some Like it Hot (1959)

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Les Yeux Sans Visage (1959)

Ride Lonesome (1959)

Orfeu Negro (1959)

Shadows (1959)

Apur Sansar (1959)

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

Ben-Hur (1959)

Pickpocket (1959)

Rio Bravo (1959)

Ukigusa (1959)

1960s

Rocco E I Suoi Fratelli (1960)

à Bout De Souffle (1960)

Le Trou (1960)

La Dolce Vita (1960)

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)

Tirez Sur Le Pianiste (1960)

L’avventura (1960)

La Joven (1960)

Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960)

Hanyeo (1960)

Psycho (1960)

La Maschera Del Demonio (1960)

Peeping Tom (1960)

The Apartment (1960)

Spartacus (1960)

Splendor In The Grass (1961)

L’année Dernière à Marienbad (1961)

La Jetée (1961)

One-Eyed Jacks (1961)

Lola (1961)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

La Notte (1961)

The Hustler (1961)

West Side Story (1961)

Viridiana (1961)

The Ladies Man (1961)

Såsom I En Spegel (1961)

Chronique D’un été (1961)

Jules Et Jim (1962)

Mondo Cane (1962)

Cléo De 5 à 7 (1962)

Dog Star Man (1962)

Sanma No Aji (1962)

L’eclisse (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Lolita (1962)

O Pagador De Promessas (1962)

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

Nattvardsgästerna (1962)

Vivre Sa Vie: Film En Douze Tableaux (1962)

Heaven and Earth Magic (1962)

The Birds (1963)

The Nutty Professor (1963)

Blonde Cobra (1963)

The Cool World (1963)

8 ½ (1963)

Pasazerka (1963)

Le Mépris (1963)

Hud (1963)

Flaming Creatures (1963)

The Great Escape (1963)

Shock Corridor (1963)

Il Gattopardo (1963)

Vidas Secas (1963)

Méditerranée (1963)

Khaneh Siah Ast (1963)

The Haunting (1963)

Yukinojo Henge (1963)

The Servant (1963)

Goldfinger (1964)

Scorpio Rising (1964)

Les Parapluies De Cherbourg (1964)

Marnie (1964)

My Fair Lady (1964)

Suna No Onna (1964)

Dr. Strangelove (1964)

A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Il Deserto Rosso (1964)

Tini Zabutykh Predkiv (1964)

The Masque of The Red Death (1964)

Prima Della Rivoluzione (1964)

Gertrud (1964)

Il Vangelo Secondo Matteo (1964)

Deus E O Diabo Na Terra Do Sol (1964)

Onibaba (1964)

Vinyl (1965)

Obchod Na Korze (1965)

Doctor Zhivago (1965)

The War Game (1965)

Tokyo Orimpikku (1965)

La Battaglia Di Algeri (1965)

The Sound of Music (1965)

Rekopis Znaleziony W Saragossie (1965)

Alphaville, Une Etrange Aventure De Lemmy Caution (1965)

Campanadas a Medianoche (1965)

Repulsion (1965)

Giulietta Degli Spiriti (1965)

Pierrot Le Fou (1965)

Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)

Subarnarekha (1965)

De Man Die Zijn Haar Kort Liet Knippen (1965)

Hold Me While I’m Naked (1966)

Blowup (1966)

Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo (1966)

Sedmikrasky (1966)

Da Zui Xia (1966)

Seconds (1966)

In The Heat of The Night (1966)

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Persona (1966)

Masculin, Féminin (1966)

Au Hasard Balthazar (1966)

2 Ou 3 Choses Que Je Sais D’elle (1967)

The Graduate (1967)

Playtime (1967)

Report (1967)

Hombre (1967)

Belle De Jour (1967)

Les Demoiselles De Rochefort (1967)

Week End (1967)

Le Samouraï (1967)

Cool Hand Luke (1967)

Point Blank (1967)

Wavelength (1967)

Bonnie and Clyde (1967)

Csillagosok, Katonák (1967)

Marketa Lazarová (1967)

The Jungle Book (1967)

Horí, Má Panenko (1967)

Terra Em Transe (1967)

Ostre Sledované Vlaky (1967)

Viy (1967)

Gaav (1968)

C’era Una Volta Il West (1968)

Planet of The Apes (1968)

Faces (1968)

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

If.... (1968)

Memorias Del Subdesarrollo (1968)

The Producers (1968)

David Holzman’s Diary (1968)

Skammen (1968)

2001: a Space Odyssey (1968)

Vargtimmen (1968)

Targets (1968)

Night of The Living Dead (1968)

High School (1968)

Hsia Nu (1969)

Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969)

Midnight Cowboy (1969)

Satyricon (1969)

Z (1969)

Il Conformista (1969)

Easy Rider (1969)

Ma Nuit Chez Maud (1969)

Lucía (1969)

In The Year of The Pig (1969)

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Andrei Rublyov (1969)

Le Boucher (1969)

Sayat Nova (1969)

Kes (1969)

1970s

Tristana (1970)

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

El Topo (1970)

Woodstock (1970)

Deep End (1970)

La Strategia Del Ragno (1970)

Little Big Man (1970)

Ucho (1970)

Patton (1970)

M*A*S*H (1970)

Performance (1970)

Gimme Shelter (1970)

Zabriskie Point (1970)

L’uccello Dalle Piume Di Cristallo (1970)

Il Giardino Dei Finzi-Contini (1970)

Wanda (1971)

W.R.: Misterije Organizma (1971)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Le Chagrin Et La Pitié (1971)

Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971)

Mccabe and Mrs. Miller (1971)

Walkabout (1971)

Klute (1971)

Harold and Maude (1971)

Még Kér a Nép (1971)

Get Carter (1971)

The French Connection (1971)

Shaft (1971)

Dirty Harry (1971)

Le Souffle Au Coeur (1971)

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

The Last Picture Show (1971)

Straw Dogs (1971)

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

The Heartbreak Kid (1972)

Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes (1972)

Cabaret (1972)

Ultimo Tango a Parigi (1972)

High Plains Drifter (1972)

Sleuth (1972)

Deliverance (1972)

Solyaris (1972)

The Godfather (1972)

Viskingar Och Rop (1972)

Fat City (1972)

Le Charme Discret De La Bourgeoisie (1972)

Die Bitteren Tranen Der Petra Von Kant (1972)

Frenzy (1972)

Pink Flamingos (1972)

Superfly (1972)

The Sting (1973)

La Maman Et La Putain (1973)

Badlands (1973)

American Graffiti (1973)

Papillon (1973)

Enter The Dragon (1973)

Mean Streets (1973)

The Long Goodbye (1973)

The Wicker Man (1973)

La Nuit Américaine (1973)

Don’t Look Now (1973)

Sleeper (1973)

Serpico (1973)

The Exorcist (1973)

Turks Fruit (1973)

El Espíritu De La Colmena (1973)

La Planète Sauvage (1973)

Amarcord (1973)

The Harder They Come (1973)

Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid (1973)

Dersu Uzala (1974)

The Conversation (1974)

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974)

Zerkalo (1974)

A Woman Under The Influence (1974)

Young Frankenstein (1974)

Chinatown (1974)

Céline Et Julie Vont En Bateau (1974)

Blazing Saddles (1974)

The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Angst Essen Seele Auf (1974)

Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

Deewaar (1975)

Monty Python and The Holy Grail (1975)

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Faustrecht Der Freiheit (1975)

India Song (1975)

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

Maynila: Sa Mga Kuko Ng Liwanag (1975)

Salò O Le Centoventi Giornate Di Sodoma (1975)

Nashville (1975)

Cría Cuervos (1975)

O Thiassos (1975)

Jaws (1975)

The Killing of a Chinese Bookie (1976)

Carrie (1976)

The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

All The President’s Men (1976)

Rocky (1976)

Taxi Driver (1976)

Network (1976)

Voskhozhdeniye (1976)

Ai No Corrida (1976)

Novecento (1976)

The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976)

Star Wars (1977)

Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977)

The Last Wave (1977)

Annie Hall (1977)

Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977)

Stroszek (1977)

Czlowiek Z Marmuru (1977)

Saturday Night Fever (1977)

Killer of Sheep (1977)

Eraserhead (1977)

Ceddo (1977)

Der Amerikanische Freund (1977)

The Hills Have Eyes (1977)

Soldaat Van Oranje (1977)

Suspiria (1977)

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978)

Wu Du (1978)

L’albero Degli Zoccoli (1978)

The Deer Hunter (1978)

Grease (1978)

Days of Heaven (1978)

Dawn of The Dead (1978)

Shao Lin San Shi Liu Fang (1978)

Up In Smoke (1978)

Halloween (1978)

Die Ehe Der Maria Braun (1979)

Real Life (1979)

My Brilliant Career (1979)

Stalker (1979)

Alien (1979)

Breaking Away (1979)

Die Blechtrommel (1979)

All That Jazz (1979)

Being There (1979)

Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979)

Life of Brian (1979)

Apocalypse Now (1979)

The Jerk (1979)

The Muppet Movie (1979)

Manhattan (1979)

Mad Max (1979)

Nosferatu: Phantom Der Nacht (1979)

1980s

Ordinary People (1980)

Atlantic City (1980)

Le Dernier Métro (1980)

The Shining (1980)

Star Wars: Episode V—the Empire Strikes Back (1980)

The Elephant Man (1980)

The Big Red One (1980)

Loulou (1980)

Airplane! (1980)

Raging Bull (1980)

Raiders of The Lost Ark (1981)

Das Boot (1981)

Gallipoli (1981)

Chariots of Fire (1981)

Body Heat (1981)

Reds (1981)

An American Werewolf In London (1981)

Tre Fratelli (1981)

Czlowiek Z Zelaza (1981)

Zu Früh, Zu Spat (1982)

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)

E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

The Thing (1982)

Poltergeist (1982)

Blade Runner (1982)

The Evil Dead (1982)

Tootsie (1982)

Yol (1982)

Diner (1982)

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Gandhi (1982)

La Notte Di San Lorenzo (1982)

De Stilte Rond Christine M. (1982)

Fanny Och Alexander (1982)

A Christmas Story (1983)

El Norte (1983)

Videodrome (1983)

Star Wars: Episode VI—return of The Jedi (1983)

The Big Chill (1983)

Sans Soleil (1983)

Le Dernier Combat (1983)

L’argent (1983)

Utu (1983)

Terms of Endearment (1983)

De Vierde Man (1983)

The King of Comedy (1983)

The Right Stuff (1983)

Koyaanisqatsi (1983)

Once Upon a Time In America (1983)

Scarface (1983)

Narayama Bushi-Ko (1983)

Amadeus (1984)

The Terminator (1984)

Paris, Texas (1984)

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

This is Spinal Tap (1984)

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

Ghost Busters (1984)

A Passage to India (1984)

Stranger Than Paradise (1984)

The Killing Fields (1984)

The Natural (1984)

The Breakfast Club (1985)

Ran (1985)

Idi I Smotri (1985)

La Historia Oficial (1985)

Out of Africa (1985)

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

Back to The Future (1985)

Tong Nien Wang Shi (1985)

Brazil (1985)

Kiss of The Spider Woman (1985)

The Quiet Earth (1985)

Mishima: a Life In Four Chapters (1985)

Prizzi’s Honor (1985)

Sans Toit Ni Loi (1985)

Shoah (1985)

The Color Purple (1985)

Manhunter (1985)

Stand by Me (1986)

Blue Velvet (1986)

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

She’s Gotta Have it (1986)

Le Déclin De L’empire Américain (1986)

The Fly (1986)

Aliens (1986)

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

Down by Law (1986)

A Room with a View (1986)

Children of a Lesser God (1986)

Platoon (1986)

Caravaggio (1986)

Tampopo (1986)

Do Ma Daan (1986)

Salvador (1986)

Top Gun (1986)

Sherman’s March (1986)

Dao Ma Zei (1986)

Yeelen (1987)

Der Himmel über Berlin (1987)

“A” Gai Waak Juk Jaap (1987)

Babbetes Gaestebud (1937)

Raising Arizona (1987)

Full Metal Jacket (1987)

Withnail and I (1987)

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)

Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987)

Broadcast News (1987)

Housekeeping (1987)

The Princess Bride (1987)

Moonstruck (1987)

The Untouchables (1987)

Hong Gao Liang (1987)

The Dead (1987)

Fatal Attraction (1987)

Sinnui Yauman (1987)

Mujeres Al Borde De Un Ataque De Nervios (1988)

Spoorloos (1988)

Bull Durham (1988)

Ariel (1988)

The Thin Blue Line (1988)

Akira (1988)

Nuovo Cinema Paradiso (1988)

Hôtel Terminus: Klaus Barbie Et Son Temps (1988)

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

The Naked Gun (1988)

Big (1988)

Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Hotaru No Haka (1988)

Topio Stin Omichli (1988)

Dekalog, Jeden (1988)

Die Hard (1988)

Une Histoire De Vent (1988)

Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)

Rain Man (1988)

Une Affaire De Femmes (1988)

Drowning by Numbers (1988)

Neco Z Alenky (1988)

Batman (1989)

When Harry Met Sally (1989)

Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989)

Drugstore Cowboy (1989)

My Left Foot (1989)

Die Xue Shuang Xiong (1989)

Do The Right Thing (1989)

Roger & Me (1989)

Glory (1989)

Astenicheskij Sindrom (1989)

Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)

Say Anything (1989)

The Unbelievable Truth (1989)

Beiqing Chengshi (1989)

1990s

S’en Fout La Mort (1990)

Reversal of Fortune (1990)

Goodfellas (1990)

Jacob’s Ladder (1990)

King of New York (1990)

Dances with Wolves (1990)

Hitlerjunge Salomon (1990)

Pretty Woman (1990)

Archangel (1990)

Trust (1990)

Nema-Ye Nazdik (1990)

Edward Scissorhands (1990)

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990)

Total Recall (1990)

Wong Fei-Hung (1991)

Boyz ‘n The Hood (1991)

Da Hong Deng Long Gao Gao Gua (1991)

Delicatessen (1991)

Guling Jie Shaonian Sha Ren Shijian (1991)

Naked Lunch (1991)

La Belle Noiseuse (1991)

The Rapture (1991)

My Own Private Idaho (1991)

Thelma & Louise (1991)

Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991)

The Silence of The Lambs (1991)

JFK (1991)

Slacker (1991)

Tongues Untied (1991)

Hearts of Darkness: a Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991)

La Double Vie De Véronique (1991)

Strictly Ballroom (1992)

The Player (1992)

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Romper Stomper (1992)

Glengarry Glen Ross (1992)

Unforgiven (1992)

Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer (1992)

Conte D’hiver (1992)

Yuen Ling-Yuk (1992)

C’est Arrivé Près De Chez Vous (1992)

The Crying Game (1992)

Ba Wang Bie Ji (1993)

Groundhog Day (1993)

Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (1993)

Short Cuts (1993)

Philadelphia (1993)

Hsimeng Jensheng (1993)

Jurassic Park (1993)

Trois Couleurs: Bleu (1993)

The Piano (1993)

Lan Feng Zheng (1993)

Hsi Yen (1993)

Schindler’s List (1993)

The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of The Desert (1994)

Trois Couleurs: Rouge (1994)

Hoop Dreams (1994)

Forrest Gump (1994)

The Lion King (1994)

Clerks (1994)

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

Natural Born Killers (1994)

The Last Seduction (1994)

Pulp Fiction (1994)

The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

Les Roseaux Sauvages (1994)

Chong Qing Sen Lin (1994)

Crumb (1994)

Sátántangó (1994)

Zire Darakhatan Zeyton (1994)

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Caro Diario (1994)

Muriel’s Wedding (1994)

Riget (1994)

Babe (1995)

Deseret (1995)

Braveheart (1995)

Safe (1995)

Toy Story (1995)

Casino (1995)

Heat (1995)

Kjærlighetens Kjøtere (1995)

Clueless (1995)

Smoke (1995)

Badkonake Sefid (1995)

Se7en (1995)

Underground (1995)

Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995)

Xich Lo (1995)

The Usual Suspects (1995)

Dead Man (1995)

Fargo (1996)

Trois Vies & Une Seule Mort (1996)

Shine (1996)

Breaking The Waves (1996)

Independence Day (1996)

Secrets & Lies (1996)

Gabbeh (1996)

Lone Star (1996)

Trainspotting (1996)

Scream (1996)

The English Patient (1996)

The Ice Storm (1997)

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

Ta’m E Guilass (1997)

Funny Games (1997)

Titanic (1997)

Abre Los Ojos (1997)

L.A. Confidential (1997)

Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Buffalo 66 (1998)

Rushmore (1998)

Lola Rennt (1998)

Happiness (1998)

Pi (1998)

Festen (1998)

Ring (1998)

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Three Kings (1999)

Magnolia (1999)

Fight Club (1999)

Audition (1999)

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Todo Sobre Mi Madre (1999)

Beau Travail (1999)

Being John Malkovich (1999)

American Beauty (1999)

The Matrix (1999)

The Sixth Sense (1999)

2000s / The Tens

Les Glaneurs Et La Glaneuse (2000)

Gladiator (2000)

Dut Yeung Nin Wa (2000)

Kippur (2000)

Yi Yi (2000)

Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Amores Perros (2000)

Dancer In The Dark (2000)

Wo Hu Cang Long (2000)

Memento (2000)

Sen to Chihiro No Kamikakushi (2001)

The Lord of The Rings (2001, 2002, and 2003)

Safar E Ghandehar (2001)

No Man’s Land (2001)

Cidade De Deus (2002)

Uzak (2002)

Hable Con Ella (2002)

The Pianist (2002)

Oldboy (2003)

Good Bye Lenin! (2003)

La Meglio Gioventù (2003)

The Passion of The Christ (2004)

Gegen Die Wand (2004)

Der Untergang (2004)

Paradise Now (2005)

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Tsotsi (2005)

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

The Departed (2006)

El Laberinto Del Fauno (2006)

Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

Das Leben Der Anderen (2006)

Once (2006)

Apocalypto (2006)

La Vie En Rose (2007)

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Le Scaphandre Et Le Papillon (2007)

There Will be Blood (2007)

No Country for Old Men (2007)

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (2008)

Joheunnom Nabbeunnom Isanghannom (2008)

The Dark Knight (2008)

Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

Gomorra (2008)

Låt Den Rätte Komma In (2008)

The Hurt Locker (2008)

Avatar (2009)

District 9 (2009)

The Hangover (2009)

In The Loop (2009)

Das Weisse Band (2009)

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Fish Tank (2009)

Monsters (2010)

Des Hommes Et Des Dieux (2010)

Black Swan (2010)

Four Lions (2010)

The Social Network (2010)

Inception (2010)

The King’s Speech (2010)

True Grit (2010)

Contributors

Picture Acknowledgments




PREFACE

BY JASON SOLOMONS

Only a few years ago, I was a member of a panel for a television show called 50 Films To See Before You Die. Now, fifty is a lovely round number—obviously suited to the constraints of scheduling and to the skittish attention spans of viewers and their itchy fingers—but, as all my co-panelists complained, it was an impossibly painful task.

The biggest pain was realizing that absolutely everyone will have seen at least fifty films in their lifetime—indeed, I’m not sure you could survive modern life without having witnessed at least fifty films. (Rather sadly, I fear there are many who now get by without having read fifty books, but that’s another argument, another list.) Our show aired nevertheless but it left everyone, viewers included, paraphrasing Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws: “We’re going to need a bigger list.”

So when 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die landed with a mighty thump on my desk, it was if the gods of cinema themselves had been watching the television and responded with an outraged Herculean challenge. 1001—now that’s what I call a list.

There will, of course, be plenty of people arguing for an even bigger list. The modern movie critic, for example, sees over 500 movies a year—in 2007, the average number of releases per week in the U.K. reached ten for the first time in history, so 1001 doesn’t at first appear to be very many.

But how many of these yearly releases merit classic or “must see” status? Pitiably few. Maybe ten, in a really good year. To be included in a list of movies that must be seen before your death, well, it figures that such a work would have to be one that enriches your life. And movies like that simply don’t come along very often.

This, then, is a list that dares, provokes, teases, and shimmers with dark promise. To enter is to embark on a journey where the end may never be reached, a labyrinthine odyssey through love, adventure, despair, triumph, good, evil, tragedy, and comedy—in short, a journey through all the things that make life worth living.

There’s a remarkable Russian-doll effect at play with this book. You can open it up on any page and find yourself mid-argument. (“Kiss Me Deadly? Surely that’s a B-movie? Yes, but it’s the best one ever made.”) Then you flick your eye to the next entry and it’s The Ladykillers and suddenly you’ve got a pair of films, from the same year (1955), that stand proudly together, each one feeding and increasing the other’s credibility, in relief as it were, pillars of achievement that will carry on delighting and influencing new generations of viewers with their different visions of gangsters, greed, and human folly. And then you’re hooked, melting into another layer of inquiry, finding yourself wondering, for example, what might be the best year in cinema history?

At a quick flick, 1940 looks a strong contender—His Girl Friday, Rebecca, The Philadelphia Story, Pinocchio, The Grapes of Wrath, and a W.C. Fields comedy called The Bank Dick that, dammit and note to self, I haven’t seen-until you turn one more page and realize that 1941 yielded Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, and Sullivan’s Travels, the Preston Sturges film you first heard about when watching the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? Oh, I wonder if that makes the list? And you dash forward to 2000 to find it doesn’t—well then, which Coen brothers films do make it? Ah, Fargo, of course, and Raising Arizona, and now, in the latest edition, their Oscar winner No Country For Old Men—and . . . now you’ve no idea where your peregrinations began, nor where you were headed.

Such journeys make for almost picaresque experiences, as familiar faces (Do The Right Thing—one my favorites, so good to see you in here, old buddy) sit smiling by impertinent strangers such as Jan Svankmajer’s Neco z Alenky, the Czech moviemaker’s version of Alice in Wonderland and a work I’ve certainly never seen. And then you’re back in reverie—my word, 1989 wasn’t a bad year either, just for New York films: Spike Lee was joined by Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally and Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, while 1989 also signaled breakthroughs for Daniel Day Lewis in My Left Foot; U.S. indie cinema with Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape winning the Golden Palm at Cannes; and the Asian New Wave with the debut of Tawain’s Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness. And I’m off again, the very thought of that (for me) forgotten film sparking memories of meeting a beautiful girl in the rain outside the Curzon Mayfair in London.

Deciding to watch all of these 1001 films—I see there’s a handy checklist in this edition so you can tick them off like a shopping list, like so many necessities—will in itself send you off on life experiences: If you want to relive 1957 with Satyajit Ray’s Aparajito, Fellini’s Le Notti di Cabiria, and the unforgettable Russian masterpiece The Cranes Are Flying, you’ll have to go browsing in independent DVD stores, scuttling to art cinemas on wet weekend breaks in Paris or Berlin, or vacationing near film festival retrospectives (I eventually saw Sullivan’s Travels in a sidebar program at the wonderfully public festival in Spain’s San Sebastian).

All this might, after all, take you a lifetime.

Steven jay schneider

Jason Solomons writes movie columns for U.K. newspapers the Observer and the Mail on Sunday and is a broadcaster on movies for television and radio.


INTRODUCTION

BY STEVEN JAY SCHNEIDER

1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die is, as the title suggests, a book that seeks not just to inform and to prescribe, but also to motivate—to turn its curious readers into ardent viewers and to make it obvious that the pressure is on, that time is short, and that the number of films eminently worth watching has become very long indeed.

Nowadays, “Top 10 Movie” lists survive almost exclusively as annual critics’ polls; and talk of “The 100 Greatest Films” tends to be restricted either to specific genres, such as comedy, horror, sci-fi, romance, or the Western, or to particular national cinemas, such as France, China, Italy, Japan, or the U.K. All of this points to the impossibility, or at least the irresponsibility, of selecting a number less than (oh let’s just say) a grand to work with when it comes to preparing a list of “best,” or most valuable, or most important, or most unforgettable movies—a list that aims to do justice and give coverage to the entire history of the medium.

With this latter goal in mind, even 1001 can quickly start to seem like way too small a number. Maybe not so small if silent movies were kept off the list; or avant-garde films; or Middle Eastern films; or animated movies; or documentaries; or shorts. . . . But these strategies of exclusion are in the end all just ways of taking the pressure off, of drawing arbitrary lines in the cinematic sand and refusing to make the heap of difficult decisions necessary to end up with a limited selection of films that treats all the heterogeneous types and traditions comprising motion picture art with equal and all due respect. The book you are holding in your hands takes a great risk in offering up an all-time, all-genre, all-world, must-see films list. But it is a risk well worth taking, and if you make the effort to go and see the films discussed herein, you can be sure to die a happy moviegoer. In short: The more you see, the better off you’ll be.

So how to determine which 1001 movies must be seen before dying? How much easier (and less controversial) it would be to come up with 1001 movies that should be avoided at all costs! It is no surprise to learn that film criticism hardly qualifies as an exact science—Roger Ebert’s infamous formula “Two thumbs up, way, way up!” notwithstanding—and it is hardly an exaggeration to claim that one person’s Midnight Cowboy may well be another one’s Ishtar. Perhaps there are ways of objectively comparing, even ranking, highly codified and historically specific cycles, movements, or subgenres, such as the 1970s Italian thriller—in this case on the basis of the form’s aestheticized violence, labyrinthine narratives, and psychological resonance. And maybe it really is legitimate to separate out Hitchcock’s indisputable classics (North By Northwest, Rear Window, Vertigo, Psycho, The Birds, and so on) from what are often held to be the director’s weaker efforts (Torn Curtain, Family Plot, Topaz, The Paradine Case). But what basis could there possibly be for deciding between Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time Is It There? and Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? Or between George Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon and Marleen Gorris’s A Question of Silence? If the goal of this book is indeed to include a little bit of everything, then what is to prevent the resulting list of 1001 films from being just a cinematic smorgasbord—a case of mere variety taking precedence over true value?

Steven jay schneider

Good questions all. The first step in determining the 1001 movies to be included here involved taking a close look at a number of existing “greatest,” “top,” “favorite,” and “best” film lists, and prioritizing titles based on the frequency with which they appeared. This allowed us to identify something like a canon of classics (including modern and contemporary films) that we felt confident warranted a spot in this book on the joint basis of quality and reputation. By no means did every film that turned up on these shorter, occasionally idiosyncratic lists make our cut of 1001, but the exercise at least gave us some key reference points and significantly reduced the unavoidably subjective nature of the selection process.

After we tentatively settled on an initial batch of around 1,300 titles, we proceeded to go through the list again (and again, and again, and again) with the dual—and conflicting—aim of reducing the overall number while still achieving sufficient coverage of the medium’s various periods, national cinemas, genres, movements, traditions, and notable auteurs. With respect to the latter, we took the notion of an “auteur” in the loosest possible sense to include not only directors (Woody Allen, Ingmar Bergman, John Cassavetes, Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, Abbas Kiarostami, Satyajit Ray, among others), but also actors (Humphrey Bogart, Marlene Dietrich, Toshiro Mifune), producers (David O. Selznick, Sam Spiegel, Irving Thalberg), screenwriters (Ernest Lehman, Preston Sturges, Cesare Zavattini), cinematographers (Gregg Toland, Gordon Willis, Freddie Young), composers (Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota), and others.

We were also mindful of not giving automatic preference—free passes, as it were—to self-consciously “quality” productions or high cinematic art (historical epics, Shakespeare adaptations, Russian formalist experiments) at the expense of ignoring the so-called “low” genres (slapstick comedy, 1930s gangster films, blaxploitation cinema), or even movies that are of somewhat questionable aesthetic merit (Pink Flamingos, Saturday Night Fever, The Blair Witch Project), wholeheartedly populist appeal (Top Gun, Rain Man, Big, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial), or dubious ideological or ethical value (The Birth of a Nation, Freaks, Triumph of the Will, Salò or The 120 Days of Sodom). Instead we endeavored to adjudge each of our candidate selections on their own terms, which meant first figuring out as best we could just what the “terms” in question consisted of—not always an easy or obvious task, as in the case of Pink Flamingos, whose infamous tagline read, “An exercise in poor taste”—and then coming up with ways of separating the wheat from the chaff (even when the difference between the two might seem so slight as to be indiscernible or irrelevant).

What’s that old saying, something along the lines of “Even if you could have filet mignon every single day, once in a while you’re bound to crave a hamburger.” The point here is, even if your filmgoing preferences lie heavily on the side of acknowledged world classics (Citizen Kane, Rashomon, Raging Bull, Battleship Potemkin) or the treasures of European art cinema (L’Avventura, Hiroshima Mon Amour, Last Tango in Paris), there is sure to come a time when you long to see a movie with a wholly different agenda, whether it’s a Hollywood blockbuster (Jurassic Park, The Empire Strikes Back, Titanic), an underground oddity (Scorpio Rising, Flaming Creatures, Hold Me While I’m Naked), or a cult curiosity piece (El Topo, Seconds, Slacker, Mondo Cane, Tetsuo). As we envisioned it, our main task was to make sure that whatever your cinematic tastes—in general, or on those days when you feel like trying something new—this book would be a menu where every dish is a winner.

Finally, after making the last agonizing cuts that were required to bring the list down to a “mere” 1001, the remaining step was for us to tweak the results based on the feedback and suggestions offered by our esteemed group of contributors, whose collective experience, expertise, and passion for watching, discussing, and writing about motion pictures has ensured that, while no list of all-time-greatest anythings can possibly be perfect (whatever that means) or utterly uncontroversial (and wouldn’t that be dull?), the one you have before you is, to be sure, as good as it gets. But it isn’t just the list itself that makes this book so special: It is also the specially commissioned entries that accompany each of the 1001 movies included on that list—concise, thoughtful, stimulating essays that seamlessly combine important plot details, insightful commentary, cultural and historical context, and a fair share of trivia besides. (George Lucas was originally set to direct Apocalypse Now? Who knew?) Don’t be fooled by the ease with which these essays are digested. There is a definite skill—one might even say an art—to writing a profound, engaging piece of only 500 words on a film like Casablanca, The Searchers, or The Rules of the Game, much less 350 words on Boogie Nights, Cries and Whispers, or The Night of the Hunter, or (gasp!) 200 words on Marketa Lazarova, The Pianist, or Cleo from 5 to 7. Somehow, with great aplomb, these authors have managed to pull it off, and brilliantly.

As for my own experience working on this book, I can only say that the pain of having to cross several personal favorites off the list was more than made up for by the pleasures of admiring the resulting medley, of reading so many wonderful film entries by so many wonderful writers on film, and of finding out so much about the history, traditions, and secret treasures of the cinema that I never knew before. Even if you have already seen all 1001 movies discussed and paid tribute to in these pages (congratulations, though I seriously doubt it), I’m sure you will benefit tremendously from reading about them here.

But the clock continues to tick away. . . . So start reading already, and keep watching!

Steven jay schneider


***


As general editor of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, I have the honor and the privilege of being able to give thanks in print to all the individuals responsible for ensuring the timely completion and inevitable success of this ambitious, enjoyable, eminently worthwhile project. My sincerest gratitude goes out to Laura Price, Catherine Osborne, and the rest of the remarkably industrious and conscientious staff at Quintet Publishing, a division of the Quarto Group; to Andrew Lockett of the British Film Institute; to the close to sixty contributors from eight different countries who worked under tight deadlines and a slave-driving editor (me) to produce the entertaining and educational film entries that make up this volume; and, as always, to my family, friends, and colleagues, whose support and encouragement continues to be my not-so-secret weapon.


Steven Jay Schneider is a film critic, scholar, and producer, with M.A. degrees in Philosophy and Cinema Studies from Harvard University and New York University, respectively. He is the author and editor of a number of books on movies.


1900s


Contents

Le Voyage Dans La Lune (1902)

The Great Train Robbery (1903)


1900s




LE VOYAGE DANS LA LUNE (1902)

A TRIP TO THE MOON

France (Star) 14m Silent BW

Director: Georges Méliès

Producer: Georges Méliès

Screenplay: Georges Méliès, from the novel De la Terre à la Lune by Jules Verne

Photography: Michaut, Lucien Tainguy

Cast: Victor André, Bleuette Bernon, Brunnet, Jeanne d’Alcy, Henri Delannoy, Depierre, Farjaut, Kelm, Georges Méliès

Steven jay schneider

When thinking about A Trip to the Moon, one’s mind is quickly captured by the original and mythic idea of early filmmaking as an art whose “rules” were established in the very process of its production. This French movie was released in 1902 and represents a revolution for the time, given its length (approximately fourteen minutes), as compared to the more common two-minute short films produced at the beginning of last century.

A Trip to the Moon directly reflects the histrionic personality of its director, Georges Méliès, whose past as a theater actor and magician influences the making of the movie. The film boldly experiments with some of the most famous cinematic techniques, such as superimpositions, dissolves, and editing practices that would be widely used later on. Despite the simplicity of its special effects, the film is generally considered the first example of science-fiction cinema. It offers many elements characteristic of the genre—a spaceship, the discovery of a new frontier—and establishes most of its conventions.

The movie opens with a Scientific Congress in which Professor Barbenfouillis (played by Méliès himself) tries to convince his colleagues to take part in a trip to explore the moon. Once his plan is accepted, the expedition is organized and the scientists are sent to the moon on a space ship. The missile-like ship lands right in the eye of the moon, which is represented as an anthropomorphic being. Once on the surface, the scientists soon meet the hostile inhabitants, the Selenites, who take them to their King. After discovering that the enemies easily disappear in a cloud of smoke with the simple touch of an umbrella, the French men manage to escape and return to Earth. They fall into the ocean and explore the abyss until they are finally rescued and honored in Paris as heroes.

Méliès here creates a movie that deserves a legitimate place among the milestones in world cinema history. Despite its surreal look, A Trip to the Moon is an entertaining and groundbreaking film able to combine the tricks of the theater with the infinite possibilities of the cinematic medium. Méliès, the magician, was an orchestrator more than a director; he also contributed to the movie as a writer, actor, producer, set and costume designer, and cinematographer, creating special effects that were considered spectacular at the time. The first true science-fiction film cannot be missed by a spectator looking for the origin of those conventions that would later influence the entire genre and its most famous entries.

In a more general sense, A Trip to the Moon can also be regarded as the movie that establishes the major difference between cinematic fiction and nonfiction. During a time when filmmaking mostly portrayed daily life (such as in the films of the Lumière brothers at the end of the 19th century), Méliès was able to offer a fantasy constructed for pure entertainment. He opened the doors to future film artists by visually expressing his creativity in a way utterly uncommon to movies of the time. CFe

See all movies from the 1900s


1900s




THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY (1903)

U.S. (Edison) 12m Silent BW (handcolored)

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Screenplay: Scott Marble, Edwin S. Porter

Photography: Edwin S. Porter, Blair Smith

Cast: A.C. Abadie, Gilbert M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson, George Barnes, Walter Cameron, Frank Hanaway, Morgan Jones, Tom London, Marie Murray, Mary Snow

Steven jay schneider

Most histories regard The Great Train Robbery as the first Western, initiating a genre that was in a few short years to become the most popular in American cinema. Made by the Edison Company in November 1903, The Great Train Robbery was the most commercially successful film of the pre-Griffith period of American cinema and spawned a host of imitations.

What is exceptional about Edwin S. Porter’s film is the degree of narrative sophistication, given the early date. There are over a dozen separate scenes, each further developing the story. In the opening scene, two masked robbers force a telegraph operator to send a false message so that the train will make an unscheduled stop. In the next scene, bandits board the train. The robbers enter the mail car, and, after a fight, open the safe. In the following scene, two robbers overpower the driver and fireman of the train and throw one of them off. Next the robbers stop the train and hold up the passengers. One runs away and is shot. The robbers then escape aboard the engine, and in the subsequent scene we see them mount horses and ride off. Meanwhile, the telegraph operator on the train sends a message calling for assistance. In a saloon, a newcomer is being forced to dance at gunpoint, but when the message arrives everyone grabs their rifles and exits. Cut to the robbers pursued by a posse. There is a shoot-out, and the robbers are killed.

There’s one extra shot, the best known in the film, showing one of the robbers firing point blank out of the screen. This was, it seems, sometimes shown at the start of the film, sometimes at the end. Either way, it gave the spectator a sense of being directly in the line of fire.

One actor in The Great Train Robbery was G.M. Anderson (real name Max Aronson). Among other parts, he played the passenger who is shot. Anderson was shortly to become the first star of Westerns, appearing as Bronco Billy in over a hundred films, beginning in 1907.

In later years some have challenged the claim of The Great Train Robbery to be regarded as the first Western, on the grounds either that it is not the first or that it is not a Western. It is certainly true that there are earlier films with a Western theme, such as Thomas Edison’s Cripple Creek Bar-Room Scene (1899), but they do not have the fully developed narrative of Porter’s film. It’s also true that it has its roots both in stage plays incorporating spectacular railroad scenes, and in other films of daring robberies that weren’t Westerns. Nor can its claim to being a true Western be based on authentic locations, because The Great Train Robbery was shot on the Delaware and Lackawanna Railroad in New Jersey. But train robberies had since the days of Jesse James been part of Western lore, and other iconic elements such as six-shooters, cowboy hats, and horses all serve to give the film a genuine Western feel. EB

See all movies from the 1900s


1910s


Contents

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Les Vampires (1915)

Intolerance (1916)

Das Kabinett Des Doktor Caligari (1919)

Broken Blossoms (1919)


1910s




THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915)

U.S. (D.W. Griffith & Epoch) 190m Silent BW

Director: D.W. Griffith

Producer: D.W. Griffith

Screenplay: Frank E. Woods, D.W. Griffith, from the novel The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, the novel The Leopard’s Spots, and the play The Clansman by Thomas F. Dixon Jr.

Photography: G.W. Bitzer

Music: Joseph Carl Breil, D.W. Griffith

Cast: Lillian Gish, Mae Marsh, Henry B. Walthall, Miriam Cooper, Mary Alden, Ralph Lewis, George Siegmann, Walter Long, Robert Harron, Wallace Reid, Joseph Henabery, Elmer Clifton, Josephine Crowell, Spottiswoode Aitken, George Beranger

Steven jay schneider

Simultaneously one of the most revered and most reviled films ever made, D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is important for the very reasons that prompt both of those divergent reactions. In fact, rarely has a film so equally deserved such praise and scorn, which in many ways raises the film’s estimation not just in the annals of cinema but as an essential historic artifact (some might say relic).

Though it was based on Thomas Dixon’s explicitly racist play The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan, by many accounts Griffith was indifferent to the racist bent of the subject matter. Just how complicit that makes him in delivering its ugly message has been cause for almost a century of debate. However, there has been no debate concerning the film’s technical and artistic merits. Griffith was, as usual, more interested in the possibilities of the medium than the message, and in this regard he set the standards for modern Hollywood.

Most overtly, The Birth of a Nation was the first real historical epic, proving that even in the silent era audiences were willing to sit through a nearly three-hour drama. But with countless artistic innovations, Griffith essentially created contemporary film language, and although elements of The Birth of a Nation may seem quaint or dated by contemporary standards, virtually every film is beholden to it in one way, shape, or form. Griffith introduced the use of dramatic close-ups, tracking shots, and other expressive camera movements; parallel action sequences, crosscutting, and other editing techniques; and even the first orchestral score. It’s a shame all these groundbreaking elements were attached to a story of such dubious value.

The first half of the film begins before the Civil War, explaining the introduction of slavery to America before jumping into battle. Two families, the northern Stonemans and the southern Camerons, are introduced. The story is told through these two families and often their servants, epitomizing the worst racial stereotypes. As the nation is torn apart by war, the slaves and their abolitionist supporters are seen as the destructive force behind it all.

The film’s racism grows even worse in its second half, set during Reconstruction and featuring the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, introduced as the picture’s would-be heroes. The fact that Griffith jammed a love story in the midst of his recreated race war is absolutely audacious. It’s thrilling and disturbing, often at the same time.

The Birth of a Nation is no doubt a powerful piece of propaganda, albeit one with a stomach-churning political message. Only the puritanical Ku Klux Klan can maintain the unity of the nation, it seems to be saying, so is it any wonder that even at the time the film was met with outrage? It was protested by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), sparked riots, and later forced Griffith himself to answer criticisms with his even more ambitious Intolerance (1916). Still, the fact that The Birth of a Nation remains respected and studied to this day—despite its subject matter—reveals its lasting importance. JKl

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1910s




LES VAMPIRES (1915)

France (Gaumont) 440m Silent BW

Director: Louis Feuillade

Screenplay: Louis Feuillade

Music: Robert Israel

Cast: Musidora, Edouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Jean Aymé, Fernand Herrmann, Stacia Napierkowska

Steven jay schneider

Louis Feuillade’s legendary opus has been cited as a landmark movie serial, a precursor of the deep-focus aesthetic later advanced by Jean Renoir and Orson Welles, and a close cousin to the surrealist movement, but its strongest relationship is to the development of the movie thriller. Segmented into ten loosely connected parts that lack cliffhanger endings, vary widely in length, and were released at irregular intervals, Les Vampires falls somewhere between a film series and a film serial. The convoluted, often inconsistent plot centers on a flamboyant gang of Parisian criminals, the Vampires, and their dauntless opponent, the reporter Philippe Guérande (Edouard Mathé).

The Vampires, masters of disguise who often dress in black hoods and leotards while carrying out their crimes, are led by four successive “Grand Vampires,” each killed off in turn, each faithfully served by the vampish Irma Vep (her name an anagram of Vampire), who constitutes the heart and soul not only of the Vampires but also of Les Vampires itself. Portrayed with voluptuous vitality by Musidora, who became a star as a result, Irma is the film’s most attractive character, clearly surpassing the pallid hero Guérande and his hammy comic sidekick Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque). Her charisma undercuts the film’s good-versus-evil theme and contributes to its somewhat amoral tone, reinforced by the way the good guys and the bad guys often use the same duplicitous methods and by the disturbingly ferocious slaughter of the Vampires at the end.

Much like the detective story and the haunted-house thriller, Les Vampires creates a sturdy-looking world of bourgeois order while also undermining it. The thick floors and walls of each château and hotel become porous with trap doors and secret panels. Massive fireplaces serve as thoroughfares for assassins and thieves, who scurry over Paris rooftops and shimmy up and down drainpipes like monkeys. Taxicabs bristle with stowaways on their roofs and disclose false floors to eject fugitives into convenient manholes. At one point, the hero unsuspectingly sticks his head out the window of his upper-story apartment, only to be looped around the neck by a wire snare wielded from below; he is yanked down to the street, bundled into a large basket, and whisked off by a taxi in less time than it takes to say “Irma Vep!” In another scene, a wall with a fireplace opens up to disgorge a large cannon, which slides to the window and lobs shells into a nearby cabaret.

Reinforcing this atmosphere of capricious stability, the plot is built around a series of tour de force reversals, involving deceptive appearances on both sides of the law: “dead” characters come to life, pillars of society (a priest, a judge, a policeman) turn out to be Vampires, and Vampires are revealed to be law enforcers operating in disguise. It is Feuillade’s ability to create, on an extensive and imaginative scale, a double world—at once weighty and dreamlike, recognizably familiar and excitingly strange—that is of central importance to the evolution of the movie thriller and marks him as a major pioneer of the form. MR



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1910s




INTOLERANCE (1916)

U.S. (Triangle & Wark) 163m Silent BW

Director: D.W. Griffith

Producer: D.W. Griffith

Screenplay: Tod Browning, D.W. Griffith

Photography: G.W. Bitzer, Karl Brown

Music: Joseph Carl Breil, Carl Davis, D.W. Griffith

Cast: Spottiswoode Aitken, Mary Alden, Frank Bennett, Barney Bernard, Monte Blue, Lucille Browne, Tod Browning, William H. Brown, Edmund Burns, William E. Cassidy, Elmer Clifton, Miriam Cooper, Jack Cosgrave, Josephine Crowell, Dore Davidson, Sam De Grasse, Edward Dillon, Pearl Elmore, Lillian Gish, Ruth Handforth, Robert Harron, Joseph Henabery, Chandler House, Lloyd Ingraham, W.E. Lawrence, Ralph Lewis, Vera Lewis, Elmo Lincoln, Walter Long, Mrs. Arthur Mackley, Tully Marshall, Mae Marsh, Marguerite Marsh, John P. McCarthy, A.W. McClure, Seena Owen, Alfred Paget, Eugene Pallette, Georgia Pearce, Billy Quirk, Wallace Reid, Allan Sears, George Siegmann, Maxfield Stanley, Carl Stockdale, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, Constance Talmadge, F.A. Turner, W.S. Van Dyke, Guenther von Ritzau, Erich von Stroheim, George Walsh, Eleanor Washington, Margery Wilson, Tom Wilson

Perhaps in part a retort to those who found fault with the racial politics in The Birth of a Nation (1915), D.W. Griffith was equally concerned to argue against film censorship. This was addressed more directly in the pamphlet issued at the time of Intolerance’s exhibition, The Rise and Fall of Free Speech in America. Griffith’s design for this film, which he finalized in the weeks following the release of his earlier epic production, is to juxtapose four stories from different periods of history that illustrate “Love’s struggle throughout the ages.” These include a selection of events from the life of Jesus; a tale from ancient Babylon, whose king is betrayed by those who resent his rejection of religious sectarianism; the story of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of French Protestants by King Charles IX of France on the perfidious advice of his mother; and a modern story in which a young boy, wrongly convicted of the murder of a companion, is rescued from execution at the last minute by the intervention of his beloved, who gains a pardon from the governor. These stories are not presented in series. Instead, Griffith cuts from one to another and often introduces suspenseful crosscutting within the stories as well. This revolutionary structure proved too difficult for most filmgoers at the time, who may also have been put off by Intolerance’s length (more than three hours). Griffith may have invested as much as $2 million in the project, but the film never came close to making back its costs, even when recut and released as two separate features, The Fall of Babylon and The Mother and the Law.

No expenses were spared in the impressive historical recreations. The enormous sets for the Babylon story, which long afterward remained a Hollywood landmark, were dressed with 3,000 extras. These production values were equaled by the sumptuous costumes and elaborate crowd scenes of the French story. Though others wrote some title cards, Griffith himself was responsible for the complicated script, which he continued to work on as production progressed. His stock company of actors performed admirably in the various roles. Constance Talmadge is particularly effective as the “Mountain Girl” in love with the ill-fated Prince Belshazzar (Alfred Paget) in the Babylon story, as are Mae Marsh and Bobby Harron as the reunited lovers in the modern story.

As in The Birth of a Nation, Griffith uses the structures of Victorian melodrama to make his political points. Intolerance is examined through the lens of tragic love, which lends emotional energy and pathos to the narratives. In the Babylonian story, Belshazzar and his beloved Attarea (Seena Owen) commit suicide rather than fall into the hands of the victorious Cyrus the Persian (George Siegmann), and in the French story a young couple, he Catholic and she Protestant, are unable to escape the massacre.

Intolerance is a monument to Griffith’s talent for screenwriting, directing actors, designing shots, and editing—a one-of-a-kind masterpiece on a scope and scale that has never been equaled. Meant to persuade, this film exerted more influence on the Soviet revolutionary cinema of Sergei Eisenstein and others than on Griffith’s American contemporaries. RBP

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1910s




DAS KABINETT DES DOKTOR CALIGARI (1919)

THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI

Germany (Decla-Bioscop) 71m Silent BW (tinted)

Director: Robert Wiene

Producer: Rudolf Meinert, Erich Pommer

Screenplay: Hans Janowitz, Carl Mayer

Photography: Willy Hameister

Music: Alfredo Antonini, Giuseppe Becce, Timothy Brock, Richard Marriott, Peter Schirmann, Rainer Viertlböck

Cast: Werner Krauss, Conrad Veidt, Friedrich Feher, Lil Dagover, Hans Heinrich von Twardowski, Rudolf Lettinger, Rudolf Klein-Rogge

Steven jay schneider

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the keystone of a strain of bizarre, fantastical cinema that flourished in Germany in the 1920s and was linked, somewhat spuriously, with the Expressionist art movement. If much of the development of the movies in the medium’s first two decades was directed toward the Lumière-style “window on the world,” with fictional or documentary stories presented in an emotionally stirring manner designed to make audiences forget they were watching a film, Caligari returns to the mode of Georges Méliès by constantly presenting stylized, magical, theatrical effects that exaggerate or caricature reality. In this film, officials perch on ridiculously high stools, shadows are painted on walls and faces, jagged cutout shapes predominate in all the sets, exteriors are obviously painted, and unrealistic backdrops and performances are stylized to the point of hysteria.

Writers Carl Mayer and Hans Janowitz conceived the film as taking place in its own out-of-joint world, and director Robert Wiene and set designers Hermann Warm, Walter Roehrig, and Walter Reimann put a twist on every scene and even intertitle to insist on this. Controversially, Fritz Lang—at an early stage attached as director—suggested that the radical style of Caligari would be too much for audiences to take without some “explanation.” Lang devised a frame story in which hero Francis (Friedrich Feher) recounts the story—of sinister mesmerist charlatan Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), his zombielike somnambulist slave Cesare (Conrad Veidt), and a series of murders in the rickety small town of Holstenwall—and is finally revealed to be an asylum inmate who, in The Wizard of Oz (1939) style, has imagined a narrative that incorporates various people in his daily life. This undercuts the antiauthoritarian tone of the film as Dr. Caligari, in the main story an asylum director who has become demented, is revealed to be a genuinely decent man out to help the hero. However, the asylum set in the frame story is exactly the same “unreal” one seen in the flashback, making the whole film and not just Francis’s bracketed story somehow unreliable. Indeed, by revealing its expressionist vision to be that of a madman, the film could even appeal to conservatives who deemed all modernist art as demented.

Wiene, less innovative than most of his collaborators, makes surprisingly little use of cinematic technique, with the exception of the flashback-within-a-flashback as Krauss is driven mad by superimposed instructions that he “must become Caligari.” The film relies entirely on theatrical devices, the camera fixed center stage as the sets are displayed and the actors (especially Veidt) providing any movement or impact. Lang’s input did serve to make the movie a strange species of amphibian: It plays as an art movie to the highclass crowds who appreciate its innovations, but it’s also a horror movie with a gimmick. With its sideshow ambience, hypnotic mad scientist villain, and leotard-clad, heroine-abducting monster, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is a major early entry in the horror genre, introducing images, themes, characters, and expressions that became fundamental to the likes of Tod Browning’s Dracula and james Whale’s Frankenstein (both 1931). KN

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1910s




BROKEN BLOSSOMS (1919)

U.S. (D.W. Griffith) 90m Silent BW (tinted screen)

Director: D.W. Griffith

Producer: D.W. Griffith

Screenplay: Thomas Burke, D.W. Griffith

Photography: G.W. Bitzer

Music: D.W. Griffith

Cast: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Donald Crisp, Arthur Howard, Edward Peil Sr., George Beranger, Norman Selby

Steven jay schneider

D.W. Griffith’s reputation in film studies is, if slightly overstated, nevertheless entirely unimpeachable. American (and world) cinema would surely be a different beast without his many contributions. The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance are, rightly, his most renowned films, remembered for their remarkable manipulations of story and editing. But another of his films, 1919’s Broken Blossoms, has always stood out as among his very best, and it is surely his most beautiful.

Along with William Beaudine’s glorious Mary Pickford vehicle Sparrows, Broken Blossoms exemplifies what was known in Hollywood as the “soft style.” This was the ultimate in glamour photography: Cinematographers used every available device—powder makeup, specialized lighting instruments, oil smeared on the lens, even immense sheets of diaphanous gauze hung from the studio ceiling—to soften, highlight, and otherwise accentuate the beauty of their stars. In Broken Blossoms, the face of the immortal Lillian Gish literally glows with a lovely, unearthly luminescence, outshining all other elements on the screen.

The beauty of Broken Blossoms must be experienced, for it is truly stunning. Gish and her costar, the excellent Richard Barthelmess, glide hauntedly through a London landscape defined by fog, eerie alleyway lights, and arcane, “Orientalist” sets. The film’s simple story of forbidden love is complemented perfectly by the gorgeous, mysterious production design, created by Joseph Stringer. No other film looks like Broken Blossoms.

The collaboration between Griffith and Gish is one of American cinema’s most fruitful: the two also worked together on Intolerance, The Birth of a Nation, Orphans of the Storm, and Way Down East, in addition to dozens of shorts. Surely this director–actor collaboration ranks with Scorsese–De Niro, Kurosawa–Mifune, and Leone–Eastwood, to name a few; indeed, it is the standard by which all others should be judged.

Griffith finds a perfect balance between the story’s mundanity and the production’s seedy lavishness (much of the film takes place in opium dens and dockside dives). It takes a skilled and confident director to handle a form/function split like this one; this is Griffith at the top of his abilities. It is the tension between the everyday and the extraordinary that drives on Broken Blossoms, securing its place in film history. EdeS

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1920s


Contents

Way Down East (1920)

Within Our Gates (1920)

Körkarlen (1921)

Orphans of The Storm (1921)

La Souriante Madame Beudet (1922)

Dr. Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922)

Nanook of The North (1922)

Nosferatu, Eine Symphonie Des Grauens (1922)

Häxan (1923)

Foolish Wives (1923)

Our Hospitality (1923)

La Roue (1923)

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Stachka (1924)

Greed (1924)

Sherlock, Jr. (1924)

Der Letzte Mann (1924)

Seven Chances (1925)

The Phantom of The Opera (1925)

Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925)

The Gold Rush (1925)

The Big Parade (1925)

Metropolis (1927)

Sunrise (1927)

The General (1927)

The Unknown (1927)

Oktyabr (1927)

The Jazz Singer (1927)

Napoléon (1927)

The Kid Brother (1927)

The Crowd (1928)

The Docks of New York (1928)

Un Chien Andalou (1928)

La Passion De Jeanne D’arc (1928)

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

Potomok Chingis-Khana (1928)

Blackmail (1929)

Chelovek S Kinoapparatom (1929)

Die Büchse Der Pandora (1929)


1920s




WAY DOWN EAST (1920)

U.S. (D.W. Griffith) 100m Silent BW

Director: D.W. Griffith

Screenplay: Anthony Paul Kelly, Joseph R. Grismer, D.W. Griffith, from the play Way Down East by Joseph R. Grismer, William A. Brady and the play Annie Laurie by Lottie Blair Parker

Cast: Lillian Gish, Richard Barthelmess, Lowell Sherman, Burr McIntosh, Kate Bruce, Mary Hay, Creighton Hale, Emily Fitzroy, Porter Strong, George Neville, Edgar Nelson

Steven jay schneider

Soon after The Birth of a Nation (1915), one of the most profitable films ever made, D.W. Griffith saw his career go into decline, mostly as a result of his inability to adapt to the changing desires of the filmgoing public. Griffith had specialized in bringing Victorian melodrama, with its tales of threatened female innocence, to the screen. By 1920, however, audiences had begun to show less interest in virtue rescued or preserved. It was therefore a surprise that Griffith decided to adapt for the screen the 1890s stage melodrama Way Down East, not to mention that he was able to breathe new life into the story and make it into a very successful film.

Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) leaves her small New England village to live with wealthier relatives in Boston. There she comes under the spell of an attractive young man named Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), who tricks her into sleeping with him by staging a phony marriage. He then sends her back to New England, with a command to keep silent about their nuptials. Upon discovering she is pregnant, Anna contacts him, only to learn the bitter truth. Nothing but disaster follows. Her mother dies. So does her child. She is driven away from the rooming house where she has taken shelter because the landlady suspects she isn’t married. Luckily, she finds a new position at a nearby farm owned by Squire Barlett (Burr McIntosh), but Sanderson lives not far away. At the farm, Anna meets the squire’s son David (Richard Barthelmess), and the two soon fall in love.

But Anna’s past catches up with her. Dismissed from the squire’s employ, she wanders off into a terrible snowstorm and finds herself on a frozen river. Floating away on an ice floe toward huge falls, Anna is rescued at the last minute by David. Sanderson’s villainy is exposed, and Anna reconciles with the repentant squire. The film ends with their wedding. The dramatic parts of Way Down East are kept lively by Griffith’s pacing of the narrative and the affecting performances of an able cast. The film’s action conclusion, however, shows the director at his finest, both in the shooting of the sequence (parts were filmed on a frozen Vermont river) and in the editing, which is fast paced and thrilling. RBP

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1920s




WITHIN OUR GATES (1920)

U.S. (Micheaux) 79m Silent BW

Director: Oscar Micheaux

Producer: Oscar Micheaux

Screenplay: Oscar Micheaux, Gene DeAnna

Music: Philip Carli

Cast: Evelyn Preer, Flo Clements, James D. Ruffin, Jack Chenault, William Smith, Charles D. Lucas, Bernice Ladd, Mrs. Evelyn, William Stark, Mattie Edwards, Ralph Johnson, E.G. Tatum, Grant Edwards, Grant Gorman, Leigh Whipper

Successful author, publisher, homesteader, and filmmaker, Oscar Micheaux is widely considered the father of African American cinema; only his second effort, Within Our Gates is one of 40 films Micheaux wrote, directed, and independently produced between 1919 and 1948. Besides its gripping narrative and artistic merits, Within Our Gates has immense historical value as the earliest surviving feature by an African American director. Powerful, controversial, and still haunting in its depiction of the atrocities committed by white Americans against blacks during this era, the film remains, in the words of one critic, “a powerful and enlightening cultural document [that] is no less relevant today than it was in 1920.”

Made just five years after D.W. Griffith’s racist masterpiece The Birth of a Nation (1915), Within Our Gates follows the struggle of Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer), a Southern black teacher who travels north in an effort to raise money for her school. But this is only one of several stories that Micheaux (who also wrote the screenplay) weaves together in his gripping look at the physical, psychological, and economic repression of African Americans.

Few people saw Within Our Gates as Micheaux intended it; the film was repeatedly edited by the censors, who found the rape and lynching scenes too provocative after the 1919 Chicago race riots. Lost for 70 years, Within Our Gates was rediscovered at the Filmoteca Española in Madrid and restored soon after. SJS

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1920s




KÖRKARLEN (1921)

THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE

Sweden (Svensk) AB) 93m Silent BW

Director: Victor Sjöström

Producer: Charles Magnusson,

Screenplay: Victor Sjöström, from novel by Selma Lagerlöf

Photography: Julius Jaenzon

Cast: Victor Sjöström, Hilda Borgström, Tore Svennberg, Astrid Holm, Concordia Selander, Lisa Lundholm, Tor Weijden, Einar Axelsson, Olof Ås, Nils Ahrén, Simon Lindstrand, Nils Elffors, Algot Gunnarsson, Hildur Lithman, John Ekman

Steven jay schneider

A celebrated world success in its initial release, The Phantom Carriage not only cemented director-screenwriter-actor Victor Sjöström and the Swedish silent cinema’s fame but also had a well-documented, artistic influence on many great directors and producers. The most well-known element of the film is undoubtedly the representation of the spiritual world as a tormented limbo between heaven and earth. The scene in which the protagonist—the hateful and self-destructive alcoholic David Holm (Sjöström)—wakes up at the chime of midnight on New Year’s Eve only to stare at his own corpse, knowing that he is condemned to hell, is one of the most quoted scenes in cinema history.

Made in a simple but time-consuming and meticulously staged series of double exposures, the filmmaker, his photographer, and a lab manager created a three-dimensional illusion of a ghostly world that went beyond anything previously seen at the cinema. More important perhaps was the film’s complex but readily accessible narration via a series of flashbacks—and even flashbacks-within-flashbacks—that elevated this gritty tale of poverty and degradation to poetic excellence.

Looking back at Sjöström’s career, The Phantom Carriage is a theological and philosophical extension of the social themes introduced in his controversial breakthrough Ingeborg Holm (1913). Both films depict the step-by-step destruction of human dignity in a cold and heartless society, driving its victims into brutality and insanity. The connection is stressed by the presence of Hilda Borgström, unforgettable as Ingeborg Holm and now in the role of a tortured wife—another desperate Mrs. Holm. She is yet again playing a compassionate but poor mother on her way to suicide or a life in the mental asylum.

The religious naïveté at the heart of Selma Lagerlöf’s faithfully adapted novel might draw occasional laughter from a secular audience some eighty years later, but the subdued, “realist” acting and the dark fate of the main characters, which almost comes to its logical conclusion, save for a melodramatic finale, never fails to impress. MT

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1920s




ORPHANS OF THE STORM (1921)

U.S. (D.W. Griffith) 150m Silent BW

Director: D.W. Griffith

Producer: D.W. Griffith

Screenplay: D.W. Griffith, from the play The Two Orphans by Eugène Cormon and Adolphe d’Ennery

Photography: Paul H. Allen, G.W. Bitzer, Hendrik Sartov

Music: Louis F. Gottschalk, William F. Peters

Cast: Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Joseph Schildkraut, Frank Losee, Katherine Emmet, Morgan Wallace, Lucille La Verne, Sheldon Lewis, Frank Puglia, Creighton Hale, Leslie King, Monte Blue, Sidney Herbert, Lee Kohlmar, Marcia Harris

The last of D.W. Griffith’s sweeping historical melodramas, Orphans of the Storm tells the story of two young girls caught in the turmoil of the French Revolution. Lillian and Dorothy Gish are Henriette and Louise Girard, two babies who become “sisters” when Henriette’s impoverished father, thinking to abandon his daughter in a church, finds Louise and, moved by pity, brings both girls home to raise. Unfortunately, they are left orphaned at an early age when their parents die of the plague. Louise is left blind by the disease, and so the girls make their way to Paris in search of her cure. There they are separated. Henriette, kidnapped by the henchmen of an evil aristocrat, is befriended by a handsome nobleman, Vaudrey (Joseph Schildkraut). Louise is rescued by a kind young man after she falls into the River Seine but, brought to his house, she is put to work by the man’s cruel brother. Adventures follow, including imprisonment in the Bastille, being condemned to death during the Reign of Terror, and saved from the guillotine by the politician Danton (Monte Blue), whose speech advocating the end of such bloodshed is one of the film’s most impassioned moments.

Although Orphans of the Storm is based on a play that had been successful in the preceding decade, Griffith wrote the script during shooting. Despite the resulting complications, the film is a masterpiece of beautiful staging and acting, with the Gish sisters turning in what are perhaps the finest performances of their careers. RBP

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1920s




LA SOURIANTE MADAME BEUDET (1922)

THE SMILING MADAME BEUDET

France (Colisée) 54m Silent BW

Director: Germaine Dulac

Screenplay: Denys Amiel, André Obey

Photography: Maurice Forster, Paul Parguel

Cast: Alexandre Arquillière, Germaine Dermoz, Jean d’Yd, Madeleine Guitty

Germaine Dulac’s celebrated film is known as one of the earliest examples of both feminist and experimental cinema. The plot depicts the life of a bored provincial housewife trapped in a stifling bourgeois marriage. The most captivating aspect of The Smiling Madame Beudet, however, is composed of elaborate dream sequences in which the eponymous housewife (Germaine Dermoz) fantasizes a life outside the confines of her monotonous existence. Using radical special effects and editing techniques, Dulac incorporates some of the early avant-garde aesthetics of the times to offset the rich, vivid feminine power of Madame Beudet’s imaginary life against the dullness of the one she shares with her husband (Alexandre Arquillière). When the complex visual elaboration of her potential liberation through fantasy—the only thing that can put a smile on her face—is cut short by the appearance of her husband within her daydreams, she is left with only one possible solution: kill him.

Sadly, Madame Beudet’s missed attempt on her husband’s life at the end of the film is yet again misunderstood, as she is not even rewarded with Monsieur Beudet’s acknowledgment of her protest against him. Ultimately, Dulac not only explicitly addresses the oppressive alienation of women within patriarchy, but more importantly, uses the still-new medium of film to offer her viewers a radical and subjective female perspective. This led to her picture’s inclusion in the first Festival of Women’s Films in New York in 1972. CO

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1920s




DR. MABUSE, DER SPIELER (1922)

DR. MABUSE, PARTS 1 AND 2

Germany (Uco-Film, Ullstein, Universum) 95m (part 1), 100m (part 2), Silent BW

Director: Fritz Lang

Producer: Erich Pommer

Screenplay: Norbert Jacques, Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou

Photography: Carl Hoffmann

Music: Konrad Elfers

Cast: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Alfred Abel, Aud Egede Nissen, Gertrude Welcker, Bernhard Goetzke, Robert Forster-Larrinaga, Paul Richterll, Hans Adalbert Schlettow, Georg John, Grete Berger, Julius Falkenstein, Lydia Potechina, Anita Berber, Paul Biensfeldt, Karl Platen

Steven jay schneider

This two-part epic was a major commercial success in Germany in 1922, doubtless because of its everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach, scrambling thrills, horrors, politics, satire, sex (including nude scenes!), magic, psychology, art, violence, low comedy, and special effects. Whereas the escapades of Fantômas (and even Fu Manchu) belong to that netherworld between the surreal and the pulpy, Dr. Mabuse was intended from the outset not merely as flamboyant thriller but as pointed editorial, using the figure of the master-of-disguise supercriminal to embody the real evils of its era.

The subtitles of each of the film’s two parts, harping on about “our time,” underline the point made obvious in the opening act, in which Mabuse’s gang steals a Swiss-Dutch trade agreement—not to make use of the secret information, but to create a momentary stock market panic that allows Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), in disguise as a cartoon plutocrat with top hat and fur coat, to make a fast fortune. He also employs a band of blind men as forgers, contributing to the feeling that German audiences at the time had that money was worthless (Mabuse sees this coming and orders his men to switch over to forging U.S. currency, since even real marks aren’t worth as much as counterfeit dollars).

The film’s eponymous villain shuffles photographs as if they were a deck of cards, selecting his identity for the day from various disguises, but it is nearly two hours before his “real” name is confirmed—by which time, we have seen Mabuse in several other guises, from respected psychiatrist to degenerate gambler to hotel manager. In Part 2, he appears as a one-armed stage illusionist, and finally loses his grip on the fragile core of his identity to become a ranting madman, tormented by the hollow-cheeked specters of those he has killed and, in a moment that still startles, by the creaking-to-life of vast, grotesque statues and bits of machinery in his final lair. Director Fritz Lang, and others, would return to Mabuse, still embodying the ills of the age—notably in the early talkie Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933) and the 1961 high-tech surveillance melodrama The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse. KN

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1920s




NANOOK OF THE NORTH (1922)

U.S. (Les Frères Revillon, Pathé) 79m Silent BW

Director: Robert J. Flaherty

Producer: Robert J. Flaherty

Screenplay: Robert J. Flaherty

Photography: Robert J. Flaherty

Music: Stanley Silverman

Cast: Nanook, Nyla, Cunayou, Allee, Allegoo, Berry Kroeger (narrator—1939 re-release)

Steven jay schneider

The history of “documentary” filmmaking—an approach generally thought to involve a filmmaker’s recording of an unmediated reality—begins really with the invention of the cinema itself, but for better or worse the nickname “father of the documentary” has generally been bestowed on Robert J. Flaherty. Raised near the U.S.–Canadian border, Flaherty loved exploring the far-off wilderness from an early age, and after his studies went to work as a mineral prospector in Canada’s Far North. Before one of his trips, someone suggested he bring along a movie camera; over the next few years, Flaherty would film hours of material of both the land and its inhabitants, which in 1916 he began showing in private screenings in Toronto. The response was enthusiastic, but just as he was about to ship his footage to the United States, he dropped a cigarette ash and his entire negative—30,000 feet—burst into flames. Flaherty took years to raise enough money to go back north and shoot again; when he finally succeeded (thanks to Revillon Frères, a French furrier), he decided to focus his efforts on filming one Nanook, a celebrated Inuit hunter. Based on his memory of the best of what he had shot before, Flaherty fashioned the events to be included in the new film, including things Nanook commonly did, some things he never did, and some things he used to do but hadn’t done in a while. The result was the deeply influential, but endlessly debated, Nanook of the North.

A series of vignettes that detail the life of Nanook and his family over a few weeks, Flaherty’s film is a kind of romantic ode to human courage and fortitude in the face of an overwhelming and essentially hostile Nature. Despite Nanook getting pride of place in the title, many audiences are left with the memory of the arbitrary fury of the arctic landscape. Indeed, the film received a powerful (if tragic) publicity boost when it was revealed that Nanook and his family had indeed perished in a raging snowstorm not long after the film was completed, giving Nanook of the North’s extraordinary and already powerful final sequence—in which the family looks for shelter from a storm—a terrible poignancy.

Many contemporary film students are critical of the picture because so much of it seems staged for the camera—several times you can practically hear Flaherty barking out directions to Nanook and the others—but the film’s many defenders over the years, such as André Bazin, wisely pointed out that Flaherty’s most remarkable achievement here is the way he seemed to capture the texture of their daily lives. The details of the walrus hunt, such as whether or when a gun was used, seem less important than Flaherty’s decision to simply follow in long shot Nanook’s slow crawl toward his prey; if Nanook’s beaming face as he warms his son’s hands is part of an act, then he was simply one of the great screen performers in history. Call it what you will—documentary, fiction, or some hybrid—Nanook of the North remains one of the few films that completely deserves its description as a classic. RP

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1920s




NOSFERATU, EINE SYMPHONIE DES GRAUENS (1922)

NOSFERATU, A SYMPHONY OF TERROR

Germany (Jofa-Atelier Berlin-Johannisthal, Prana-Film) 94m Silent BW

Director: F.W. Murnau

Screenplay: Henrik Galeen

Photography: Günther Krampf, Fritz Arno Wagner

Music: James Bernard (restored version)

Cast: Max Schreck, Alexander Granach, Gustav von Wangenheim, Greta Schröder, Georg H. Schnell, Ruth Landshoff, John Gottowt, Gustav Botz, Max Nemetz, Wolfgang Heinz, Guido Herzfeld, Albert Venohr, Hardy von Francois

Steven jay schneider

Bram Stoker’s Dracula inspired one of the most impressive of all silent features. The source material and the medium seem almost eerily meant for each other. Stoker’s novel, largely written in the form of a series of letters, is light on traditional dialogue and heavy on description, perfect for the primarily visual storytelling of silent films. It is fitting that a story of the eternal conflict between light and darkness should be matched to a format consisting almost entirely of the interplay of light and darkness.

Director F.W. Murnau had already established himself as a star of the German Expressionist movement when he decided to adapt the Stoker novel, renamed Nosferatu after legal threats from Stoker’s estate. In fact, the finished film barely evaded a court order that all copies be destroyed, but in the end little of Stoker’s novel was ultimately altered, save the names of the characters, and indeed the success of Nosferatu led to dozens of subsequent (and mostly officially sanctioned) Dracula adaptations.

Yet Nosferatu, even so many years later, stands apart from most Dracula films. One key difference is the striking presence of star Max Schreck, whose surname translates as “fear.” Schreck plays the eponymous vampire with an almost savage simplicity. His creature of the night is little different from the rats at his command, lurching instinctively toward any sight of blood with barely disguised lust.

This explains the terror of Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim), who has traveled to the isolated castle of Count Orlok (Schreck) high in the Carpathian Mountains to help the strange man settle some legal matters. The mere mention of Orlok silences the townsfolk with fear, and Hutter’s suspicions deepen when he discovers that the stagecoach taking him to the castle has no driver. Orlok himself offers little solace. He keeps odd hours and leaves Hutter locked in a tower. Fearing for his life—and specifically the bloodlust of his captor—he escapes and returns to Bremen, Germany. But Orlock follows, setting his sights not on Hutter but on his innocent wife, Ellen (Greta Schröder): “Your wife has a beautiful neck,” comments Orlok to Hutter. Just as her connection with Hutter helps rescue him from Orlok’s clutches, Ellen discovers that it is also up to her to lure the demonic creature to his (permanent) demise: to be vaporized by the rays of the morning sun.

With Nosferatu Murnau created some of cinema’s most lasting and haunting imagery: Count Orlok creeping through his castle, striking creepy shadows while he’s stalking Hutter; Orlock rising stiffly from his coffin; the Count, caught in a beam of sunlight, cringing in terror before fading from view. He also introduced several vampire myths that fill not just other Dracula films but permeate popular culture as well. JKl

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1920s




HÄXAN (1923)

Denmark / Sweden (Aljosha, Svensk) 87m Silent BW

Director: Benjamin Christensen

Screenplay: Benjamin Christensen

Photography: Johan Ankerstjerne

Music: Launy Grøndahl (1922), Emil Reesen (1941 version)

Cast: Elisabeth Christensen, Astrid Holm, Karen Winther, Maren Pedersen, Ella La Cour, Emmy Schønfeld, Kate Fabian, Oscar Stribolt, Clara Pontoppidan, Else Vermehren, Alice O’Fredericks, Johannes Andersen, Elith Pio, Aage Hertel, Ib Schønberg

Steven jay schneider

Pioneering Danish filmmaker Benjamin Christensen’s notorious 1922 “documentary” Häxan is a bizarre silent-film oddity that explores the nature of witchcraft and diabolism from ancient Persia through then-modern times using various cinematic approaches, from still images to models to vivid, dramatic reenactments. It is a hard film to pin down, and it defies any boundaries of genre, especially those of the documentary film, which in the early 1920s was still amorphous and undefined. Part earnest academic exercise in correlating ancient fears with misunderstandings about mental illness and part salacious horror movie, Häxan is a truly unique work that still holds the power to unnerve even in today’s jaded era.

To visualize his subject matter, Christensen fills the frames with every frightening image he can conjure out of the historical records, often freely blending fact and fantasy. We see a haggard old witch pull a severed, decomposing hand out of a bundle of sticks. There are shocking moments in which we witness a woman giving birth to two enormous demons, see a witches’ sabbath, and endure tortures by inquisition judges. We watch an endless parade of demons of all shapes and sizes, some of whom look more or less human, whereas others are almost fully animal—pigs, twisted birds, cats, and the like.

Christensen was certainly a cinematic visionary, and he had a keen notion of the powerful effects of mise-en-scène. Although Häxan is often cited as a key forerunner of such modern devil-possession films as The Exorcist (1973), it also brings to mind Tobe Hooper’s effective use of props and background detail in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) to create an enveloping atmosphere of potential violence. Häxan is a film that needs to be viewed more than once to gain a full appreciation of the set design and decoration—the eerie use of props, claustrophobic sets, and chiaroscuro lighting to set the tone. It is no surprise that the surrealists were so fond of the film and that its life was extended in the late 1960s, when it was reissued as a midnight movie with narration by none other than William S. Burroughs. JKe

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1920s




FOOLISH WIVES (1923)

U.S. (Universal) 85m Silent BW

Director: Erich von Stroheim

Screenplay: Marian Ainslee, Walter Anthony, Erich von Stroheim

Photography: William H. Daniels, Ben F. Reynolds

Music: Sigmund Romberg

Cast: Rudolph Christians, Miss DuPont, Maude George, Mae Busch, Erich von Stroheim, Dale Fuller, Al Edmundsen, Cesare Gravina, Malvina Polo, Louis K. Webb, Mrs. Kent, C.J. Allen, Edward Reinach

Although Greed is Erich von Stroheim’s most famous film, Foolish Wives is his masterpiece. Like Greed, it was heavily reedited, but what remains (especially after a major 1972 restoration) is a more accomplished and consistent work. Stroheim himself stars as the unscrupulous Count Karamzin, a Monte Carlo-based pseudoaristocrat who sets out to seduce the neglected wife of an American diplomat.

This witty, ruthlessly objective film confirms its director as the cinema’s first great ironist. The antihero Karamzin is skewered with sardonic relish—absurdly foolish, brazenly insincere, thoroughly indiscriminate in his taste in women, and, when the chips are down, contemptibly cowardly—but he and his decadent colleagues are so much more entertaining than the virtuous American hubby and his commonplace spouse. The film’s tone of cool, lively detachment is enhanced by its exhaustive elaboration of the world around the characters, articulating space through visual strategies (such as layered depth, peripheral motions, and multiple setups) that make us intensely aware of the entire 360-degree field of each scene. Stroheim stacks the deck by placing his dull, flat Americans in dull, flat spaces; otherwise, there’s hardly a shot that doesn’t dazzle the eye with rich, shimmering interplay of detail, lighting, gesture, and movement. MR

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1920s




OUR HOSPITALITY (1923)

U.S. (Joseph M. Schenck) 74m Silent BW

Director: John G. Blystone, Buster Keaton

Producer: Joseph M. Schenck

Screenplay: Clyde Bruckman, Jean C. Havez

Photography: Gordon Jennings, Elgin Lessley

Cast: Joe Roberts, Ralph Bushman, Craig Ward, Monte Collins, Joe Keaton, Kitty Bradbury, Natalie Talmadge, Buster Keaton Jr., Buster Keaton

Arguably as great a film as the better-known The General (1927), Our Hospitality— Buster Keaton’s masterly satire of traditional Southern manners—kicks off with a beautifully staged dramatic prologue that establishes the absurdly murderous parameters of the age-old feud between two families. By the time the main story takes over, Buster’s Willie McKay is a twenty-something innocent, raised in New York but returning (thanks to a wondrously funny odyssey involving a primitive train) to his familial town, where his courtship of a girl met en route—the daughter, as it happens, of the clan still sworn to spilling his blood—places him in deadly peril, even though Southern hospitality dictates his enemies treat him properly as long as he’s in their home.

Much of the humor thereafter derives from a darkly ironic situation whereby Willie determines to remain a guest of his would-be killers while they smilingly try to ensure his departure. Keaton’s wit relies not on individual gags but on a firm grasp of character, predicament, period, place, and camera framing (see how he keeps the camera moving after he’s fallen off the ludicrous bicycle it has been tracking alongside); the result is not only very funny, but also dramatically substantial and suspenseful—nowhere more so than the justly celebrated sequence when Willie saves his beloved from plunging over a waterfall. Never was Keaton’s sense of timing so miraculous, his ability to elicit laughter and excitement simultaneously so gloriously evident. GA

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1920s




LA ROUE (1923)

THE WHEEL

France (Abel Gance) 273m Silent BW

Director: Abel Gance

Producer: Abel Gance, Charles Pathé

Screenplay: Abel Gance

Photography: Gaston Brun, Marc Bujard, Léonce-Henri Burel, Maurice Duverger

Music: Arthur Honegger

Cast: Severin-Mars, Ivy Close, Gabriel de Gravone, Pierre Magnier, Gil Clary, Max Maxudian, Georges Térof

Visionary French filmmaker Abel Gance’s The Wheel opens with a spectacular fast-cut train crash, as revolutionary to spectators in 1922 as the Lumières’s train arriving in a station in 1895. Railwayman Sisif (Severin-Mars) saves Norma (Ivy Close) from the crash and brings her up as his daughter. Both he and his son Elie (Gabriel de Gravone) fall in love with her, so Sisif marries her off to a rich man. She and Elie eventually fall in love; both her husband and Elie die after a struggle. Sisif goes blind and dies, after being tended by Norma.

Then, as now, opinions on what was originally a sprawling nine-hour film are divided. The Wheel’s melodramatic plot was combined with wide-ranging literary references, including Greek tragedy, as is suggested by Sisif’s name (Sisyphus) and his blindness associated with incestuous desire (Oedipus). These “pretensions” were seen by intellectuals to conflict with the film’s extraordinary cinematographic techniques (such as the accelerating montage sequences based on musical rhythms), which related the film to avant-garde preoccupations with a “pure” cinema and Cubist concerns with machines as the emblem of modernity. The film’s contradictions are admirably brought together in the central metaphor of the title: the wheel of fate (Sisif/Sisyphus ends up driving the funicular railway up and down Mont Blanc), the wheel of desire, the wheel of the film itself with its many cyclical patterns. PP

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1920s




THE THIEF OF BAGDAD (1924)

U.S. (Douglas Fairbanks) 155m Silent BW (tinted)

Director: Raoul Walsh

Producer: Douglas Fairbanks

Screenplay: Douglas Fairbanks, Lotta Woods

Photography: Arthur Edeson

Music: Mortimer Wilson

Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Snitz Edwards, Charles Belcher, Julanne Johnston, Sojin, Anna May Wong, Brandon Hurst, Tote Du Crow, Noble Johnson

The Thief of Bagdad marked the culmination of Douglas Fairbanks’s career as the ultimate hero of swashbuckling costume spectacles. It is also one of the most visually breathtaking movies ever made, a unique and integral conception by a genius of film design, William Cameron Menzies. Building his mythical Bagdad on a six-and-a-half-acre site (the biggest in Hollywood history), Menzies created a shimmering, magical world, as insubstantial yet as real and haunting as a dream, with its reflective floors, soaring minarets, flying carpets, ferocious dragons, and winged horses.

As Ahmed the Thief in quest of his Princess, Fairbanks—bare chested and with clinging silken garments—explored a new sensuous eroticism in his screen persona, and found an appropriate costar in Anna May Wong, as the Mongol slave girl. Although the nominal director was the gifted and able Raoul Walsh, the overall concept for The Thief of Bagdad was Fairbanks’s own, as producer, writer, star, stuntman, and showman of unbounded ambition. (Side note: the uncredited Persian Prince in the film is played by a woman, Mathilde Comont.) DR

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1920s




STACHKA (1924)

STRIKE

U.S.S.R. (Goskino, Proletkult) 82m Silent BW

Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein

Producer: Boris Mikhin

Screenplay: Grigori Aleksandrov, Sergei M. Eisenstein

Photography: Vasili Khvatov, Vladimir Popov, Eduard Tisse

Cast: Grigori Aleksandrov, Aleksandr Antonov, Yudif Glizer, Mikhail Gomorov, I. Ivanov, Ivan Klyukvin, Anatoli Kuznetsov, M. Mamin, Maksim Shtraukh, Vladimir Uralsky, Vera Yanukova, Boris Yurtsev

Steven jay schneider

Sergei M. Eisenstein was a revolutionary in every sense, forging a radically new breed of montage-based cinema from an unprecedented merger of Marxist philosophy, Constructivist aesthetics, and his own fascination with the visual contrasts, conflicts, and contradictions built into the dynamics of film itself.

Strike, his first feature, was intended as one installment in a series of works about the rise of Marxist-Leninist rule. Censorship by the new Soviet government thwarted many of Eisenstein’s dreams in ensuing years, and this series never got beyond its initial production. Nonetheless, the feverishly energetic Strike stands on its own as a tour de force of expressive propaganda and the laboratory in which seminal ideas for his later silent masterpieces—The Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (1927), and Old and New (1928)—were first tested and refined.

Strike depicts a labor uprising in a Russian factory, where workers are goaded toward rebellion by the owners’ greed and dishonesty. We see simmering unrest among the laborers, an act of treachery that pushes them into action, the excitement of their mutiny followed by the hardships of prolonged unemployment, and finally the counterstrike of the factory owners, abetted by troops who engage in wholesale slaughter of the workers. The film ends with an electrifying example of what Eisenstein called “intellectual montage,” intercutting the massacre of strikers with images of animals being slain in a slaughterhouse.

The acting in Strike is as unconventional as its editing techniques, mixing naturalistic portrayals of the workers with stylized portrayals of the owners and their spies. The film illustrates Soviet theories of “typage,” calling for actors who physically resemble the character types they play, and the “collective hero,” whereby a story’s protagonist is not a single individual but rather all the people standing on the correct side of history.

The political imperatives of Strike have dated since its premiere in 1925, but its visual power has not waned. “I don’t believe in the kino-eye,” Eisenstein once remarked, referring to a catchword of Dziga Vertov, his colleague and rival. “I believe in the kino-fist.” That hard-hitting philosophy galvanizes every sequence of this unique film. DS

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1920s




GREED (1924)

U.S. (MGM) 140m Silent BW

Director: Erich von Stroheim

Producer: Louis B. Mayer

Screenplay: Joseph Farnham, June Mathis, from the novel McTeague by Frank Norris

Photography: William H. Daniels, Ben F. Reynolds

Cast: Zasu Pitts, Gibson Gowland, Jean Hersholt, Dale Fuller, Tempe Pigott, Sylvia Ashton, Chester Conklin, Frank Hayes, Joan Standing

Steven jay schneider

The first movie ever shot entirely on location, Greed is notorious as much for the story behind its making as for its considerable artistic power. Director Erich von Stroheim wanted to make the most realistic movie possible with his adaptation of Frank Norris’s novel McTeague, about the rise and violently murderous fall of working-class San Francisco dentist John “Mac” McTeague. But his creation, originally commissioned by the director-friendly Goldwyn Company, was destroyed when the studio became Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), with von Stroheim’s nemesis Irving Thalberg as the new General Manager.

MGM wanted a commercial film, and von Stroheim wanted to create an experiment in cinematic realism worthy of the 1990s Dogme school. During the two-year shoot, he rented an apartment on Laguna Street in San Francisco that became the set for Mac’s (Gibson Gowland) dental parlors. Many of the scenes there were shot entirely with natural light. Von Stroheim also insisted that his actors live in the apartment to help them get into character. One of the fascinations in watching Greed is seeing all the historic San Francisco locations as they were in the early 1920s. When it came time to shoot the film’s final climactic moments in Death Valley, von Stroheim shipped his whole crew out to the 120°F desert location, where the cameras became so overheated they had to be wrapped with iced towels.

The director’s first cut was nearly nine hours long. It was a painstaking reenactment of Norris’s novel, which itself was a re-creation of an actual crime that took place during the early 1880s. After a quack doctor helps Mac escape the Northern California mining town of his childhood, he becomes a dentist in San Francisco. There he meets Trina (Zasu Pitts), with whom he falls in love during a memorably creepy tooth-drilling scene. His best friend and rival for Trina’s affections is Marcus (Jean Hersholt), who grants Mac permission to marry Trina but changes his mind after she wins a lottery. Using his connections in local government, Marcus manages to put Mac out of business and send his former friend into a free fall of back-breaking day labor, drunkenness, and wife beating.

Trina turns to her lottery winnings as a source of satisfaction, hoarding her thousands in gold coins while she and Mac starve. One of Greed’s most famous scenes has Trina climbing into bed with her money, caressing it, and rolling around with erotic abandon. Shortly thereafter Mac murders her, steals the money, and heads out to Death Valley where his life comes to a bitter end when Marcus hunts him down.

Only a small handful of people ever saw the original nine-hour version of Greed. After von Stroheim’s friend helped him cut the picture down to eighteen reels, or about four hours, the studios took it away from him and handed it over to a low-ranking editor who reduced it to 140 minutes. This version of the film, which von Stroheim called “a mutilation of my sincere work at the hands of the MGM executives,” is nevertheless stark, captivating, and genuinely disturbing.

In 1999, film restorer Rick Schmidlin released a four-hour version of Greed that was reconstructed from original production stills and von Stroheim’s shooting script. AN

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1920s




SHERLOCK, JR. (1924)

U.S. (Buster Keaton) 44m Silent BW

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton

Producer: Joseph M. Schenck, Buster Keaton

Screenplay: Clyde Bruckman, Jean C. Havez

Photography: Byron Houck Elgin Lessley

Music: Myles Boisen, Sheldon Brown, Beth Custer, Steve Kirk, Nik Phelps

Cast: Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire, Joe Keaton, Erwin Connelly, Ward Crane Ward Crane

Steven jay schneider

Sherlock, Jr. is Buster Keaton’s shortest feature film, yet it is a remarkable achievement, possessing a tightly integrated plot, stunning athleticism (Keaton did all his own stunts, unknowingly breaking his neck during one of them), artistic virtuosity, and an avant-garde exploration of the perennial dichotomy of reality versus illusion. Keaton here plays a projectionist and detective wannabe falsely accused of stealing from his girlfriend’s father. Framed by a rival suitor (Ward Crane), the young man is banished from the girl’s home. Dejected, he falls asleep on the job. In his dream state, he transcends into the screen (in a brilliant sequence of optical effects), where he is the dapper protagonist Sherlock, Jr.—the world’s second greatest detective.

Unbelievable stunts and complicated gags move this 44-minute film along at a fever pitch. At first, the cinematic reality refuses to accept this new protagonist and the tension between the two worlds is magnificently presented via a montage of spatial shifts that land our bewildered hero in a lion’s den, amid roaring waves, and in a snowdrift. Gradually, he assimilates fully into the film world. In the mise-en-abyme storyline, the villain (also played by Ward Crane) is trying to kill the hero in vain, before Sherlock, Jr. solves the mystery of the stolen pearls.

Sherlock, Jr. not only features the incredible stunts for which Keaton is famous, but also poses a number of issues. From a social perspective, it is a commentary on the fantasies about upward mobility in American society. On a psychological plane, it introduces the motif of the double striving for fulfillment in imaginary spaces, as the protagonist is unable to achieve it in ordinary, tangible reality. Above all, the film is a reflection on the nature of art, a theme that resurfaces again in The Cameraman (1928), when Keaton’s focus shifts from medium to spectator.

Keaton’s films remain interesting today, in part due to the director-star’s almost otherworldly stoicism (compared to Chaplin’s pathos), and in part due to their occasionally surreal nature (admired by Luis Buñuel and Federico García Lorca) and their delving into the nature of cinema and existence itself. Chuck Jones, Woody Allen, Wes Craven, Jackie Chan, and Steven Spielberg are among the filmmakers to pay homage to Keaton’s irresistible mischief, and his films remain perhaps the most accessible of all silent movies. RDe

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1920s




DER LETZTE MANN (1924)

THE LAST LAUGH

Germany (Universum, UFA) 77m Silent BW

Director: F.W. Murnau

Producer: Erich Pommer

Screenplay: Carl Mayer

Photography: Robert Baberske, Karl Freund

Music: Giuseppe Becce, Timothy Brock, Peter Schirmann

Cast: Emil Jannings, Maly Delschaft, Max Hiller, Emilie Kurz, Hans Unterkircher, Olaf Storm, Hermann Vallentin, Georg John, Emmy Wyda

Despite a ludicrously unconvincing happy ending grafted on at the insistence of UFA, F.W. Murnau’s The Last Laugh remains a very impressive attempt to tell a story without the use of intertitles. The plot itself is nothing special—a hotel commissionaire, humiliated by his loss in status when he is demoted to lavatory attendant because of his advancing years, sinks so low that he is tempted to steal back his beloved uniform (the symbol of his professional pride). In some respects the film is merely a vehicle for one of Emil Janning’s typically grandstand performances.

Above and beyond this somewhat pathetic parable, however, exists one of Murnau’s typically eloquent explorations of cinematic space: the camera prowls around with astonishing fluidity, articulating the protagonist’s relationship with the world as it follows him around the hotel, the city streets, and his home in the slum tenements. Some of the camera work is “subjective.” as when his drunken perceptions are rendered by optical distortion; at other times, it is the camera’s mobility that is evocative, as when it passes through the revolving doors that serve as a symbol of destiny. The dazzling technique on display may, in fact, be rather too grand for the simple story of one old man, yet there is no denying the virtuosity either of Murnau’s mise-en-scène or of Karl Freund’s camera work. GA

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1920s




SEVEN CHANCES (1925)

U.S. (Buster Keaton) 56m Silent BW / Technicolor

Director: Buster Keaton

Producer: Joseph M. Schenck, Buster Keaton

Screenplay: Clyde Bruckman, Jean C. Havez, Joseph A. Mitchell

Photography: Byron Houck, Elgin Lessley

Cast: Buster Keaton, T. Roy Barnes, Snitz Edwards, Ruth Dwyer, Frances Raymond, Erwin Connelly, Jules Cowles

Every kind of cinematic gag gets worked out in Seven Chances, engineering laughter from an astonishing interplay of time, space, and physicality. Take the famous camera angle inside a church—Buster asleep in the front pew, invisible to the hundreds of grotesque women who completely fill the space behind him. (This is really all that remains in the film’s woeful 1999 remake, The Bachelor.)

The serene nuttiness of Keaton’s gag concepts buoyed the hearts of the surrealists who were his contemporaries: the plot’s irrational fixation on the number seven (seven chances for Buster to be married on his twenty-seventh birthday by seven o’clock); or the wondrous gags that make complete nonsense of any fixed human identity—as in the sequence where a bunch of supposedly white, all-American, adult women turn out to be (respectively) a little girl, Jewish, black, and male.

Keaton’s best and most extended gag sequences are dynamic and transformative. The whole world seems to unshape and reshape itself before our eyes. In the climactic chase sequence, Buster is pursued by an enormous pack of vengeful women. After he trips on a few rocks, suddenly Earth itself is after him, in the form of a huge avalanche. AM

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1920s




THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925)

U.S. (Universal Pictures) 93m Silent BW / Color (2-strip Technicolor)

Director: Rupert Julian, Lon Chaney

Producer: Carl Laemmle

Screenplay: Gaston Leroux

Photography: Milton Bridenbecker, Virgil Miller, Charles Van Enger

Music: Gustav Hinrichs (1925 version), David Broekman, Sam Perry, William Schiller (1929 version)

Cast: Lon Chaney, Mary Philbin, Norman Kerry, Arthur Edmund Carewe, Gibson Gowland, John St. Polis, Snitz Edwards

Steven jay schneider

This 1925 silent remains the closest adaption of Gaston Leroux’s trash masterpiece of the same name, a novel that has a terrific setting and a great central figure but a plot that creaks at every turn. The film is a strange combination of plodding direction (mostly from Rupert Julian, though other hands intervened) and incredible Universal Pictures set design, so that stick-figure characters—weedy hero Norman Kerry is especially annoying—pose in front of incredibly impressive tableaux.

The Phantom of the Opera delivers a series of masterly moments that cover up its rickety structure: the masked ball (a brief Technicolor sequence), where the Phantom shows up dressed as Edgar Allan Poe’s Red Death; the chandelier-dropping where the Phantom lets the audience know what he thinks of the current diva; various trips into the magical underworld beneath the Paris Opera House; and—best of all—the unmasking in which the tragic villain’s disfigured skullface is first seen (so shocking that even the camera is terrified, going briefly out of focus).

The reason this film is a classic is that it enshrines one of the greatest bits of melodramatic acting in the silent cinema—Lon Chaney’s impeccably dressed, lovelorn, violent ghoul-genius. Favorite intertitle: “You are dancing on the tombs of tortured men!” KN

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1920s




BRONENOSETS POTYOMKIN (1925)

THE BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN

U.S.S.R. (Goskino, Mosfilm) 75m Silent BW

Director: Grigori Aleksandrov, Sergei M. Eisenstein

Producer: Jacob Bliokh

Screenplay: Nina Agadzhanova, Sergei M. Eisenstein

Photography: Vladimir Popov, Eduard Tisse

Music: Nikolai Kryukov, Edmund Meisel, Dmitri Shostakovich

Cast: Aleksandr Antonov, Vladimir Barsky, Grigori Aleksandrov, Mikhail Gomorov, Ivan Bobrov, Beatrice Vitoldi, N. Poltavseva, Julia Eisenstein

Steven jay schneider

The Battleship Potemkin—such a famous film! Sergei Eisenstein’s second feature was to become not just a point of ideological conflict between the East and the West, the Left and the Right, but a must-see film for every cinema lover on the planet. Decades of censorship and militant support, countless words analyzing its structure, its symbolism, its sources and effects, and thousands of visual quotations have all served to make it very difficult for us to see the story behind the film. Eisensteins’s The Battleship Potemkin may not be historically accurate, but his legendary vision of oppression and rebellion, individual and collective action, and its artistic ambition to work simultaneously with bodies, light, trivial objects, symbols, faces, movement, geometrical forms and more is a unique keyboard. As a true artist of film, he manages to elaborate a magnificent and touching myth.

It should be kept in mind, however, that this aesthetic sensibility was endowed with political significance as well: the “changing of the world by conscious men” that had been dreamed of in those times and was known by the term “Revolution.” But even without an awareness of what it meant, or—better—without a precise awareness of what it eventually turned into, the wind of an epic adventure still blows on the screen here, and makes it move. Whatever else one chooses to call it, this adventure is the unique impulse that drives the people of Odessa toward liberty, the sailors of the eponymous battleship to battle against hunger and humiliation, and the filmmaker himself to invent new cinematic forms and rhythms.

The Battleship Potemkin has been seen too often in excerpted form, or on the basis of its most famous scenes and sequences. It may come as something of a surprise to find how powerful it is to see the film in its entirety—that is to say, as a dramatic and touching story—rather than treating it as a priceless jewelry box from which to remove individual pieces on occasion.

Such a renewed, innocent approach to the film will bring back a real sense of being to those icons that have become familiar to us all: the baby carriage on the steps; the face of the dead sailor under the tent at the end of the pier; the worms in the meat; the leather boots; the iron guns pointed toward bodies and faces; the glasses of a blind political, military, and religious power waiting in the void. Then, before it all becomes ideological interpretation, the stone lion coming alive to roar with anger and a desire to live will become a metaphor for the film itself—and for the high and daring idea of cinema it was bearing—escaping from its monumental status to be found, alive and fresh once again, by every new pair of eyes that looks upon it. J-MF

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1920s




THE GOLD RUSH (1925)

U.S. (Charles Chaplin) 72m Silent BW

Director: Charles Chaplin

Producer: Charles Chaplin

Screenplay: Charles Chaplin

Photography: Roland Totheroh

Music: Max Terr (1942 version)

Cast: Charles Chaplin, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Henry Bergman, Malcolm Waite, Georgia Hale

Steven jay schneider

The Gold Rush affirmed Charles Chaplin’s belief that tragedy and comedy are never far apart. His unlikely dual inspiration came from viewing some stereoscope slides of the privations of prospectors in the Klondyke Gold Rush of 1896–98, and reading a book about the Donner Party Disaster of 1846, when a party of immigrants, snowbound in the Sierra Nevada, were reduced to eating their own moccasins and the corpses of their dead comrades. Out of these grim and unlikely themes, Chaplin created high comedy. The familiar Little Tramp becomes a gold prospector, joining the mass of brave optimists to face all the hazards of cold, starvation, solitude, and the occasional incursion of a grizzly bear.

The film was in every respect the most elaborate undertaking of Chaplin’s career. For two weeks the unit shot on location at Truckee in the snow country of the Sierra Nevada. Here Chaplin faithfully recreated the historic image of the prospectors struggling up the Chilkoot Pass. Some 600 extras, many drawn from the vagrants and derelicts of Sacramento, were brought by train to clamber up the 2,300-foot pass dug through the mountain snow. For the main shooting, the unit returned to the Hollywood studio, where a remarkably convincing miniature mountain range was created out of timber, chicken wire, burlap, plaster, salt, and flour. In addition, the studio technicians devised exquisite models to produce the special effects that Chaplin required, like the miners’ hut, which is blown by the tempest to teeter on the edge of a precipice, for one of cinema’s most sustained sequences of comic suspense. Often it is impossible to detect the shifts in the film from model to full-size set.

The Gold Rush abounds with now-classic comedy scenes. The historic horrors of the starving 19th-century pioneers inspired the sequence in which the Little Tramp and his partner Big Jim (Mack Swain) are snowbound and ravenous. The Little Tramp cooks his boot, with all the airs of a gourmet. In the eyes of the delirious Big Jim, he is intermittently transformed into an oven-worthy chicken—a triumph both for the cameramen, who had to effect the elaborate trick work entirely in the camera, and for Chaplin, who magically assumes the characteristics of a bird.

The lone prospector’s dream of hosting a New Year’s dinner for the beautiful dance-hall girl (Georgia Hale, who replaced sixteen-year-old Lita Grey when Lita became pregnant and married Chaplin) provides the opportunity for another famous Chaplin set piece: the dance of the rolls. The gag had been seen in films before, but Chaplin gives unique personality to the dancing legs created out of forks and bread rolls.

Today, The Gold Rush appears as one of Chaplin’s most perfectly accomplished films. Though his affections for his own work changed over time, to the end of his life he would frequently declare that this film was the one by which he would most wish to be remembered. DR

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1920s




THE BIG PARADE (1925)

U.S. (MGM) 141m Silent BW (tinted sequences)

Director: King Vidor

Producer: Irving Thalberg

Screenplay: Harry Behn, Joseph Farnham

Photography: John Arnold

Music: William Axt, Maurice Baron, David Mendoza

Cast: John Gilbert, Renée Adorée, Hobart Bosworth, Claire McDowell, Claire Adams, Robert Ober, Tom O’Brien, Karl Dane, Rosita Marstini, George Beranger, Frank Currier

Steven jay schneider

Based on a story by Laurence Stallings, who wrote the Broadway smash What Price Glory?, King Vidor’s epic film about the American experience of World War I traces the adventures of three soldiers from different backgrounds who find themselves in France. Rich boy Jim (John Gilbert), whose fiancée had encouraged him to join up, meets a beautiful French woman (Renée Adorée) in the village where their unit has been assigned lodging. In one of The Big Parade’s most tender scenes, she clutches the boot he has left with her as the soldiers make their way to the front. Once they arrive at the trenches, the battle of Belleau Wood commences. Attacking a machine gun nest, Jim’s two buddies are killed and he is wounded. Seeking refuge in a shell hole, he discovers a dying German soldier already occupying it and the two share a cigarette. Eventually, he is found and then taken to a field hospital. His attempts to reach the farmhouse fail as he falls unconscious.

Back in America, Jim is reunited with his family, but is bitterly unhappy because he has lost a leg. His fiancée, in any case, has now fallen in love with his brother. Finally, Jim accepts his mother’s advice and returns to France, where in the film’s most moving scene he locates his lost love as she is helping her mother plow the fields. With its expert mixture of physical comedy (particularly in the French farmhouse scenes) and well-staged action, The Big Parade proved an immense success—a testimony to producer Irving Thalberg’s oversight of the project—and counts as one of the triumphs of the late silent era.

Gilbert turns in a fine performance as Jim, showing the box-office appeal that made him one of the era’s biggest stars, and Adorée is appropriately appealing as his love interest. Because it shows the horrors of war, The Big Parade has often been thought a pacifist tract, but in truth its politics are muted. As Thalberg wanted, the film is much more of a comedy romance, with the war serving as the means through which Jim becomes a man and discovers the kind of life he really wants to live. RBP

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1920s




METROPOLIS (1927)

Germany (Universum/UFA) 120m Silent BW

Director: Fritz Lang

Producer: Erich Pommer

Screenplay: Fritz Lang, Thea von Harbou

Photography: Karl Freund, Günther Rittau

Music: Gottfried Huppertz

Cast: Alfred Abel, Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Fritz Rasp, Theodor Loos, Heinrich George

Steven jay schneider

Originally clocking in at over two hours, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis is the first science-fiction epic, with huge sets, thousands of extras, then-state-of-the-art special effects, lots of sex and violence, a heavy-handed moral, big acting, a streak of Germanic gothicism, and groundbreaking fantasy sequences. Bankrolled by UFA, Germany’s giant film studio, it was controversial in its day and proved a box-office disaster that nearly ruined the studio.

The plot is almost as simplistic as a fairy tale, with Freder Fredersen (Gustav Frölich), pampered son of the Master of Metropolis (Alfred Abel), learning of the wretched lives of the multitude of workers who keep the gleaming supercity going. Freder comes to understand the way things work by the saintly Maria (Brigitte Helm), a pacifist who constantly preaches mediation in industrial disputes, as well as by secretly working on a hellish ten-hour shift at one of the grinding machines. The Master consults with mad engineer Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), who has created a feminoid robot he reshapes to be an evil double of Maria and unleashes on the city. The robotrix goes from dancing naked in a decadent nightspot to inciting a destructive riot, which allows Lang to get the most value out of the huge factory sets by blowing them up and/or flooding them, but Freder and the real Maria save the day by rescuing the city’s children from a flood. Society is reunited when Maria decrees that the heart (Freder) must mediate between the brain (the Master) and the hands (the workers).

Shortly after its premiere, the expensive film was pulled from distribution and reedited against Lang’s wishes: this truncated, simplified form remained best-known, even in the colorized Giorgio Moroder remix of the 1980s, until the twenty-first century, when a partial restoration—with tactful linking titles to fill in the scenes that remain irretrievably missing—made it much closer to Lang’s original vision. This version not only adds many scenes that went unseen for decades, but also restores their order in the original version and puts in the proper intertitles. Up to that point rated as a spectacular but simplistic science-fiction film, this new-old version reveals that the futuristic setting isn’t intended as prophetic but mythical, with elements of 1920s architecture, industry, design, and politics mingled with the medieval and the Biblical to produce images of striking strangeness: a futuristic robot burned at the stake, a steel-handed mad scientist who is also a fifteenth-century alchemist, the trudging workers of a vast factory plodding into the jaws of a machine that is also the ancient god Moloch. Frölich’s performance as the hero who represents the heart is still wildly overdone, but Klein-Rogge’s engineer Rotwang, Abel’s Master of Metropolis, and especially Helm in the dual role of saintly savior and metal femme fatale are astonishing. By restoring a great deal of story delving into the mixed motivations of the characters, the wild plot now makes more sense, and we can see it is as much a twisted family drama as an epic of repression, revolution, and reconciliation. KN

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1920s




SUNRISE (1927)

U.S. (Fox) 97m Silent BW

Director: F.W. Murnau

Producer: William Fox

Screenplay: Hermann Sudermann, Carl Mayer

Photography: Charles Rosher, Karl Struss

Music: Timothy Brock, Hugo Riesenfeld

Cast: George O’Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston, Bodil Rosing, J. Farrell MacDonald, Ralph Sipperly, Jane Winton, Arthur Housman, Eddie Boland, Barry Norton

Oscars: William Fox (unique and artistic picture), Janet Gaynor (actress), Charles Rosher, Karl Struss (photography)

Oscar nomination: Rochus Gliese (art direction)

Steven jay schneider

Trivia buffs might note that although many history books often cite Wings (1927) as the first Best Picture recipient at the Academy Awards, the honor actually went to two films: William Wellman’s Wings, for “production,” and F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, for “unique and artistic production.” If the latter category sounds more impressive than the former, that explains (in part at least) why Sunrise, and not Wings, remains one of the most revered films of all time. William Fox initially drew Murnau to America with the promise of a big budget and total creative freedom, and the fact that Murnau made the most of it with this stunning masterpiece ratified his peerless reputation as a cinematic genius.

Sunrise itself is deceptively simple. Subtitled somewhat enigmatically A Song of Two Humans, the film focuses on a country-dwelling married couple whose lives are disrupted by a temptress from the city. But Murnau draws waves of emotion from what could have been a rote melodrama, further enhanced by a bevy of groundbreaking filmmaking techniques. Most notable is the use of sound effects, pushing silent cinema one step closer to the talkie era—an achievement unfairly overshadowed by The Jazz Singer, released later in 1927. Murnau also creatively manipulates the use and effect of title cards (three years earlier, he had directed the title-free The Last Laugh).

The most striking aspect of Sunrise is its camera work. Working with a pair of cinematographers, Charles Rosher and Karl Struss, Murnau borrowed from his own experience in the German Expressionist movement as well as from the pastoral portraits of the Dutch masters, particularly Jan Vermeer. Linked with graceful and inventive camera movements and accented with in-camera tricks (such as multiple exposures), each scene of Sunrise looks like a masterful still photograph.

As magical as the imagery may be, the very simplicity of the story lends Sunrise a formidable dramatic weight. George O’Brien, pondering the murder of his innocent wife Janet Gaynor, is wracked with guilt, and his wife responds with appropriate terror once his intentions become obvious. The boat trip leading to her intended demise is fraught with both suspense and an odd sense of sadness, as the good O’Brien struggles to bring his monstrous thoughts to their fruition. Margaret Livingston, as the urban seductress, in many ways seems like the feminine equivalent of Murnau’s vampire Count Orlok (from the 1922 film Nosferatu), relentlessly preying on poor O’Brien’s soul. In one scene he is even beset by spectral images of her, surrounding him, clutching at him, and provoking him with her murderous desires.

Alas, the film turned out to be a box-office flop, and Murnau died in a car accident a few years later. But Sunrise remains a benchmark by which all other films—silent or not—should be measured, a pinnacle of craft in a more primitive age whose sophistication belies the resources at the time. Its shadow looms over several subsequent great works, from Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) to Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (1946), yet at the same time its own brilliance is inimitable. JKl

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1920s




THE GENERAL (1927)

U.S. (Buster Keaton, United Artists) 75m Silent BW (Sepiatone)

Director: Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton

Producer: Buster Keaton, Joseph M. Schenck

Screenplay: Al Boasberg, Clyde Bruckman

Photography: Bert Haines, Devereaux Jennings

Music: Robert Israel, William P. Perry

Cast: Marion Mack, Charles Smith, Richard Allen, Glen Cavender, Jim Farley, Frederick Vroom, Joe Keaton, Mike Donlin, Tom Nawn, Buster Keaton

Steven jay schneider

Keaton made several films—Our Hospitality (1923), Sherlock, Jr. (1924), Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)—that may be counted among the finest (and funniest) in cinema’s entire comic output, but none is as strong a contender to the title of the greatest comedy ever made as this timeless masterpiece. It isn’t merely the constant stream of great gags, nor the way they derive wholly from situation and character rather than existing in isolation from the film’s drama. Rather, what makes The General so extraordinary is that it is superlative on every level: in terms of its humor, suspense, historical reconstruction, character study, visual beauty, and technical precision. One might even argue that it comes as close to flawless perfection as any feature ever made, comic or otherwise.

Much of the pleasure derives from the narrative itself, inspired by a book about the real-life exploits of a group of Northern soldiers who during the Civil War disguised themselves as Southerners to steal a train, which they drove north to rejoin their Unionist comrades until they were caught and executed. Keaton, understandably given that he was making a comedy, dropped the executions and changed the heroic perspective to that of a Southerner, Johnny Gray, a railway-driver who stoically if somewhat absurdly goes in solo pursuit of Unionist spies when they steal both his engine—“The General”—and, inside it, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), the other love of his life. The film’s first half follows Johnny’s rejection by the army with his chase after the train, which he recaptures behind enemy lines; the second half depicts his flight (with Annabelle) from the Union troops to his hometown where—after handing over the Girl, The General, and a real Northern army general inadvertently brought along for the ride—he is acclaimed as a hero.

This elegant symmetrical story line is both formally pleasing and the source of suspense and gags; but the voyage also lends the film an epic tone which, combined with Keaton’s customarily meticulous historical detail, transforms it into perhaps the finest Civil War movie ever made. Then, finally, there is Buster’s Johnny: unsmiling yet beautiful in his brave, faintly ridiculous determination—the epitome of this serio-comic masterpiece, and as deeply human a hero as the cinema has given us. GA

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1920s




THE UNKNOWN (1927)

U.S. (MGM) 65m Silent BW

Director: Tod Browning

Screenplay: Tod Browning, Waldemar Young

Photography: Merritt B. Gerstad

Cast: Lon Chaney, Norman Kerry, Joan Crawford, Nick De Ruiz, John George, Frank Lanning, Polly Moran

Steven jay schneider

Best known for directing Bela Lugosi in the 1931 Universal horror classic Dracula (1931), and most notorious for his 1932 oddity Freaks, circus performer-turned-filmmaker Tod Browning’s all-around greatest film is The Unknown. The film is an under-appreciated silent-era gem starring the writer-director’s favorite (and most famous) actor, the so-called “Man of a Thousand Faces,” Lon Chaney.

Well known and greatly admired for the physical pain he would regularly endure playing physically disabled antagonists or antiheroes, Chaney here outdoes himself as Alonzo, a criminal with an extra thumb on one hand who seeks to avoid capture by pretending to be an armless knife-thrower in a gypsy-run circus. The armless gig at first has an additional benefit, as Alonzo’s beautiful assistant Nanon (Joan Crawford in one of her earliest leads), daughter of the circus owner, cannot stand being embraced by men—in particular the chief competition with Alonzo for her affections, weight-lifting strongman Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry).

After Nanon’s father accidentally sees his arms, Alonzo murders him in order to keep the secret from getting out. Nanon, meanwhile, catches a glimpse of the killer’s double thumb without seeing his face. Obsessed with Nanon, distraught over the possibility that she will eventually discover his true identity, Alonzo dismisses the objections of his dwarf assistant Cojo (John George) and has his arms surgically amputated. But in one of The Unknown’s most delicious and disturbing ironies, when Alonzo returns to the circus after a lengthy convalescence, he finds that Nanon has gotten over her phobia of being held, and has fallen head over heels for Malabar.

Seeking poetic justice (or just garden-variety revenge) for this ultra-cruel twist of fate, the now truly armless Alonzo attempts to rig Malabar’s latest circus act—in which the strongman ties his arms to a pair of horses, each one pulling in the opposite direction—so that his rival will end up armless as well. However, his scheme is foiled at the last second, and Alonzo himself gets killed saving Nanon from being trampled by one of the horses.

Drawing a remarkable and haunting performance from Chaney and filling the plot with striking twists and unforgettable characters, Browning here creates a chilling masterpiece of psychological (and psychosexual) drama. As Michael Koller writes, “The Unknown is a truly horrifying film that takes us into the darkest recesses of the human psyche.” SJS

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1920s




OKTYABR (1927)

OCTOBER

U.S.S.R. (Sovkino) 95m Silent BW

Director: Grigori Aleksandrov, Sergei M. Eisenstein

Screenplay: Grigori Aleksandrov, Sergei M. Eisenstein

Photography: Vladimir Nilsen, Vladimir Popov, Eduard Tisse

Music: Alfredo Antonini, Edmund Meisel

Cast: Vladimir Popov, Vasili Nikandrov, Layaschenko, Chibisov, Boris Livanov, Mikholyev, N. Podvoisky, Smelsky, Eduard Tisse

Steven jay schneider

In 1926, Sergei M. Eisenstein went to Germany to present his new film The Battleship Potemkin. He left a promising young filmmaker, but he came back an international cultural superstar. A series of major film productions was being planned to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Bolshevik victory. Eisenstein eagerly accepted the challenge of presenting on screen the revolutionary process in Russia—literally, how the country went from Aleksandr Kerensky’s “Provisional Government,” installed after the Czar’s abdication, to the first victories of Lenin and his followers.

No expense was spared. Massive crowd scenes were organized, and city traffic was diverted so Eisenstein could shoot in the very sites where the depicted incident occurred. Contrary to popular belief, the film contains not one meter of documentary footage. Every shot was a re-creation. Working feverishly, Eisenstein finished just in time for the anniversary celebrations, but the reactions, official and otherwise, were less than enthusiastic. Many found the film confusing and difficult to follow. Others wondered why the role of Lenin was so greatly reduced (the actor playing him, Vasili Nikandrov, appears only a handful of times on screen.) Several critics who had supported Potemkin suggested that Eisenstein go back to the editing room and keep working.

There is no denying that October is some sort of masterpiece, but figuring out what kind is a real challenge. As a didactic tool, a means of “explaining” the revolution to the masses at home and abroad, the film is simply ineffective. For many audiences, sitting through it is a real chore. The characterizations are all paper thin, and anyone with even a smattering of historical knowledge can see right through its crude propaganda. Yet what is perhaps most powerful and touching about October is simply its level of ambition. Sergei M. Eisenstein was surely the cinema’s most remarkable personality for the first 50 years of its existence, impossibly erudite, with an unlimited belief in cinema’s potential. At his most delirious, Eisenstein imagined that cinema could represent “visual thinking”—not just arguments, but the process by which the mind constructs arguments. Photographic images, the raw material of cinema, had to be “neutralized” into sensations and stimuli so that a film could reveal concepts and not just people or things. The real engine that would drive the cinema machine as Eisenstein saw it was montage, editing: the “mystical” interaction that occurs when two separate pieces of film are joined together.

October is the purest, most cogent example of Eisenstein’s theory and practice of cinema. There are several absolutely breathtaking sequences: the toppling of the Czar’s statue, the raising of the bridge, and especially the frequently cited “For God and Country” sequence. Evidence of the cold engineer that Eisenstein originally trained to be might be found in the cathedral-like intricacy of its editing. However, scratch just below the film’s surface and you can feel the exhilaration—and the touch of madness—of an artist standing on the I threshold of what he believes will be a brave new world. RP

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1920s




THE JAZZ SINGER (1927)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 88m BW

Director: Alan Crosland

Screenplay: Alfred A. Cohn, Jack Jarmuth

Photography: Hal Mohr

Music: Ernie Erdman, James V. Monaco, Louis Silvers, Irving Berlin

Cast: Al Jolson, May McAvoy, Warner Oland, Eugenie Besserer, Otto Lederer, Bobby Gordon, Richard Tucker, Cantor Joseff Rosenblatt

Oscar: Alfred A. Cohn, Jack Jarmuth (honorary award for pioneering talking pictures)

Oscar nomination: Alfred A. Cohn (screenplay)

Steven jay schneider

Throughout film history, certain movies have been the center of special attention, if not for their aesthetics, then for their role in the development of cinema as we know it. Alan Crosland’s The Jazz Singer is undoubtedly one of the films that has marked the path of motion pictures as both an art form and a profitable industry. Released in 1927 by Warner Brothers and starring Al Jolson, one of the best-known vocal artists at the time, The Jazz Singer is unanimously considered the first feature-length sound movie. Although limited to musical performances and a few dialogues following and preceding such performances, the use of sound introduced innovative changes in the industry, destined to revolutionize Hollywood as hardly any other movie has done.

In its blend of vaudeville and melodrama, the plot is relatively simple. Jakie (Jolson) is the only teenage son of the devoted Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland), who encourages his child to follow the same path of generations of Cantors in the family. Although profoundly influenced by his Jewish roots, Jakie’s passion is Jazz and he dreams about an audience inspired by his voice. After a family friend confesses to Cantor Rabinowitz to having seen Jakie singing in a café, the furious father punishes his son, causing him to run away from the family house and from his heartbroken mother Sara (Eugenie Besserer). Years later Jakie, aka Jack Robin, comes back as an affirmed Jazz singer looking for reconciliation. Finding his father still harsh and now sick, Jack is forced to make a decision between his career as a blackface entertainer and his Jewish identity.

A milestone in film history representing a decisive step toward a new type of cinema and a new type of entertainment, The Jazz Singer is more than just the first “talkie.” As Michael Rogin, the famed political scientist, has argued, The Jazz Singer can be cited as a typical example of Jewish transformation in U.S. society: the racial assimilation into white America, the religious conversion to less strict spiritual dogma, and the entrepreneurial integration into the American motion picture industry during the time of the coming of sound. CFe

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1920s




NAPOLÉON (1927)

France / Italy / Germany / Spain / Sweden / Czechoslovakia (Gance, Soc. générale) 378m (original) Silent BW (some color)

Director: Abel Gance

Producer: Robert A. Harris

Screenplay: Abel Gance

Photography: Jules Kruger, Joseph-Louis Mundwiller, Torpkoff

Music: Arthur Honegger

Cast: Albert Dieudonné, Vladimir Roudenko, Edmond Van Daële, Alexandre Koubitzky, Antonin Artaud, Abel Gance, Gina Manès, Suzanne Bianchetti, Marguerite Gance, Yvette Dieudonné, Philippe Hériat, Pierre Batcheff, Eugénie Buffet, Acho Chakatouny, Nicolas Koline

At 333 minutes in its longest extant version, Abel Gance’s 1927 biopic is an epic on a scale to satisfy its subject. Although it follows Bonaparte from his schooldays in 1780—marshalling snowball fights—through to his triumphant Italian campaign of 1796, by contemporary standards the film lacks depth. For Gance, Napoléon (played by the appropriately named Albert Dieudonné) was a “man of destiny,” not pyschology. His paean to the French Emperor has something in common with Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (1938), both thrilling pieces of cinema in the service of nationalist propaganda.

If Gance is more of an innovator than an artist, it’s a measure of his brilliance that Napoléon still brims with energy and invention today. None of his contemporaries—not even Murnau—used the camera with such inspiration. Gance thought nothing of strapping cameramen to horses; he even mounted a camera on the guillotine. In one brilliant sequence, he captures the revolutionary spirit of a rousing (silent) rendition of “La Marseilles” by swinging the camera above the set as if it were on a trapeze. His most spectacular coup, though, is “Polyvision,” a split-screen effect which called for three projectors to create a triptych—nearly three decades before the advent of Cinerama. TCh

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1920s




THE KID BROTHER (1927)

U.S. (Paramount, Harold Lloyd) 84m Silent BW

Director: J.A. Howe, Ted Wilde

Producer: Jesse L. Lasky, Harold Lloyd, Adolph Zukor

Screenplay: Thomas J. Crizer, Howard J. Green, John Grey, Lex Neal, Ted Wilde

Photography: Walter Lundin

Cast: Harold Lloyd, Jobyna Ralston, Walter James, Leo Willis, Olin Francis, Constantine Romanoff, Eddie Boland, Frank Lanning, Ralph Yearsley

Harold Lloyd is often regarded as the “third genius” of silent American comedy, his 1920s’ work often considerably more successful with the public than that of Buster Keaton, and even Charlie Chaplin. Often directly associated with the Zeitgeist of the Jazz Age, Lloyd’s screen persona is routinely noted for its “speedy,” can-do optimism and his films singled out for the audacious, often dangerous stunts and acrobatic feats that they contain. In many of his films the wonders of modernity and their embodiment in the teeming city itself are chief preoccupations. The Kid Brother, Lloyd’s second feature for Paramount, is often considered to be the bespectacled comic’s best and most holistic film. In many ways it deliberately turns its back on the 1920s, returning somewhat to the rural “idyll” of the 1922 film Grandma’s Boy.

The film’s two most startling sequences provide a kind of essay in contrast, illustrating the combination of both a delicate and somewhat more rugged athleticism that marks Lloyd’s best work. In the first sequence, Lloyd is shown climbing a tall tree to attain a slightly longer look at the woman he has just met (and fallen for). This sequence illustrates the often meticulous and technically adventurous aspects of Lloyd’s cinema—an elevator was built to accommodate the ascending camera—and the ways these are intricately connected to elements of character and situation (also demonstrating Lloyd’s masterly use of props). The second extended sequence features a fight between Lloyd and his chief antagonist, and is remarkable for its sustained ferocity and precise staging. Both sequences show Lloyd’s character transcending his seeming limitations, moving beyond appearances, and traveling that common trajectory from mama’s boy to triumphant “average” American. AD

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1920s




THE CROWD (1928)

U.S. (MGM) 104m Silent BW

Director: King Vidor

Producer: Irving Thalberg

Screenplay: King Vidor & John V.A. Weaver

Photography: Henry Sharp

Cast: Eleanor Boardman, James Murray, Bert Roach, Estelle Clark, Daniel G. Tomlinson, Dell Henderson, Lucy Beaumont, Freddie Burke Frederick, Alice Mildred Puter

Oscar nominations: Irving Thalberg (best picture—unique and artistic picture), King Vidor (director)

Steven jay schneider

“You’ve got to be good in that town if you want to beat the crowd.” So says young John on his first sight of New York City, the thrilling metropolis where he’s sure his special qualities will raise him high above the common herd.

Things work out differently for the hero of The Crowd, who shouldn’t really be called a hero, because director King Vidor’s intention was to portray a man so painfully ordinary that he could seem a randomly selected sample from the movie’s eponymous urban multitude. He begins the story as a newborn baby indistinguishable from any other, and ends it as a New York bourgeois man indistinguishable from any other. In between, he undergoes experiences so humdrum that only a studio as adventurous as MGM under Irving G. Thalberg’s regime would have considered it the stuff of Hollywood drama at all.

Nor would it have been if Vidor hadn’t given it such stunningly imaginative treatment. From the stylized scene where John learns of his father’s untimely death—filmed in a stairwell with forced perspective, borrowing from German film expressionism—to the closing shot of John and his wife Mary, the generically named protagonists of this generically titled film, engulfed in an unthinking throng of moviegoers who mirror their herdlike selves, as unerringly and relentlessly as they mirror our own.

Vidor was riding high in Hollywood when he made The Crowd, fresh from the success of his World War I epic The Big Parade two years earlier. To play Mary he chose the attractive star Eleanor Boardman, who also happened to be his wife; but for John he took a chance on the little-tested James Murray, whose erratic career ended in suicide less than a decade later.

Although both are brilliant, Murray shines brightest under Vidor’s expert guidance; for evidence see the sequence when an unthinkable tragedy strikes the couple before their horrified eyes, uniting inspired acting with split-second editing and absolutely perfect camera work to produce one of the most unforgettable moments in all of silent cinema. It’s a scene that stands leagues above the crowd in a movie that does the same from start to finish. DS

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1920s




THE DOCKS OF NEW YORK (1928)

U.S. (Famous Players-Lasky, Paramount) 76m Silent BW

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Producer: J.G. Bachmann

Screenplay: Jules Furthman, from the story The Dock Walloper by John Monk Saunders

Photography: Harold Rosson

Cast: George Bancroft, Betty Compson, Olga Baclanova, Clyde Cook, Mitchell Lewis, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Guy Oliver, May Foster, Lillian Worth

Steven jay schneider

The last full year of Hollywood’s silent era, 1928, produced some of its greatest masterpieces, marking the final maturation of a form that was soon to be extinct: The Cameraman, The Crowd, Street Angel, The Wedding March, The Wind. Like these others, Josef von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York is a film of consummate economy and refinement. The plot is minimal and the characters few, leaving more room for the film’s maximal elaboration of atmosphere and gesture.

The characters of The Docks of New York seem to have stepped out of the fatalistic naturalism of a Eugene O’Neill play and into the archetypal dreamscape of a fairy tale: Anna Christie and The Hairy Ape meet Beauty and the Beast. Sternberg’s waterfront romance contains two main sections: night and morning. Night is a luminous shadowland of mist, smoke, pools of light, and rippling reflections. In this enchanted realm, hulking stoker Bill (George Bancroft) fishes suicidal tramp Mae (Betty Compson) out of the drink. The couple end up at a rowdy saloon where they talk each other into a spur-of-the-moment marriage that might be sincere or just the pretext for a one-night stand. The cold, clear light of morning brings desertion, disillusion, and a change of heart, as Bill impulsively jumps ship and returns to take the rap for a stolen dress he had given to Mae.

The restraint and precision of the performances—Bancroft’s guarded nonchalance, the deliberate grace with which he moves his massive body, and Compson’s languid weariness and the delicate balance between hurt and hope in her upturned eyes—maintain a constantly rippling veil of speculation over the main characters’ inner thoughts and feelings. How much are Bill and Mae bluffing each other, how much are they deceived by each other, and how much are they deceiving themselves? Sternberg, by all accounts (including his own) was the iciest of directors, yet he created several of the cinema’s most moving testaments to the power of love to make fools of us all. The Docks of New York is one of them, made all the more convincing by the self-deprecating reticence with which it reveals its foolish heart. MR

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1920s




UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1928)

AN ANDALUSIAN DOG

France 16m silent BW

Director: Luis Buñuel

Producer: Luis Buñuel

Screenplay: Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí

Photography: Albert Duverger

Cast: Pierre Batcheff, Simone Mareuil, Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí

Steven jay schneider

The directorial debut of Luis Buñuel, collaborating with artist Salvador Dalí, is etched into our consciousness of film history because of one image above all: a razor slicing open an eyeball. What is this: shock tactic, symbol of a modernist “vision,” male aggression toward woman? For Jean Vigo—who hailed An Andalusian Dog for its “social consciousness”—Buñuel’s associative montage raised a philosophical query: “Is it more dreadful than the spectacle of a cloud veiling a full moon?” One thing is certain: The image kicks off a classic surrealist parable of Eros ever denied, ever frustrated by institutions and mores.

Too often—because of its heavy influence on rock video—An Andalusian Dog has been reduced to, and recycled as, a collection of disconnected, striking, incongruous images: dead horse on a piano, ants in a hand. But this overlooks what gives the work its cohering force: the fact that, in many ways, Buñuel scrupulously respects certain conventions of classical continuity and linkage, creating a certain, disquieting narrative sense among these fragments from the unconscious. This is a dialectic of surface rationality versus deep, churning, forces from the Id that Buñuel would continue exploring to the very end of his career. AM

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1920s




LA PASSION DE JEANNE D’ARC (1928)

THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC

France (Société générale) 110m Silent BW

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Screenplay: Joseph Delteil, Carl Theodor Dreyer

Photography: Rudolph Maté

Cast: Eugene Silvain, André Berley, Maurice Schutz, Antonin Artaud, Michel Simon, Jean d’Yd, Louis Ravet, Armand Lurville, Jacques Arnna, Alexandre Mihalesco, Léon Larive

Steven jay schneider

Carl Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece—his last silent film, and the greatest of all Joan of Arc films—is the work of his that brought him worldwide fame, although, like most of his later pictures, it was strictly a succès d’estime and fared poorly at the box office. A print of the original version—lost for half a century—was rediscovered in a Norwegian mental asylum in the 1980s. Other prints had perished in a warehouse fire, and the two versions subsequently circulated consisted of outtakes.

All of Dreyer’s films were based on works of fiction or plays, with the exception of The Passion of Joan of Arc, which was essentially based on the official transcripts of the proceedings of Joan’s trial—albeit highly selective and radically compressed portions of that trial. It was made only eight years after Joan was canonized in France and ten years after the end of World War I, both of which were central to Dreyer’s interpretation. The helmets worn by the occupying British in 1431 resemble those in the recent war, and 1928 audiences saw the film as a historical “documentary” rather like the later films of Peter Watkins.

Joan is played by Renée Falconetti, a stage actress Dreyer discovered in a boulevard comedy, and following his instructions, she played the part without makeup. She and her interlocutors are filmed almost exclusively in close-ups. Though hers is one of the key performances in the history of movies, she never made another film. Antonin Artaud also appears in his most memorable screen role, as the sympathetic brother Jean Massieu.

Dreyer’s radical approach to constructing space and the slow intensity of his mobile camera style make this a “difficult” film in the sense that, like all great films, it reinvents the world from the ground up. The Passion of Joan of Arc is also painful in a way that all Dreyer’s tragedies are, but it will continue to live long after most commercial movies have vanished from memory. JRos

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1920s




STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (1928)

U.S. (Buster Keaton) 71m Silent BW

Director: Charles Reisner, Buster Keaton

Producer: Joseph M. Schenck

Screenplay: Carl Harbaugh

Photography: Bert Haines, Devereaux Jennings

Cast: Buster Keaton, Tom McGuire, Ernest Torrence, Tom Lewis, Marion Byron

Even more than the formally experimental Sherlock, Jr. (1924), this film, along with Our Hospitality (1923) and The General (1927), reveals just how great a director Buster Keaton was, over and above his considerable talents as a comedian. In Steamboat Bill, Jr., by means of his customarily unintrusive but always expert placing of the camera, we get a real feeling for the small Mississippi riverside town where city slicker and college graduate Willie turns up to see his beleaguered steamboat-proprietor father. Dad, a rough-and-ready type, is dismayed by his son’s somewhat foppish ways and is even less happy when the boy falls for the daughter of a wealthy rival determined to blow Bill, Sr., out of the water.

Needless to say, Willie finally gets to prove his mettle during a climactic typhoon that destroys the town in an extended sequence of virtuoso stunts, meticulously staged action sequences, and superbly paced suspense, but not before much fun has been had with notions of acceptable/unacceptable masculine behavior. One scene in particular, in which father and son shop for hats (played straight to camera as if it were a mirror), is not only hilarious but a prime example of Keaton’s very “modern” and playful awareness of his comic persona. Magic. GA

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1920s




POTOMOK CHINGIS-KHANA (1928)

STORM OVER ASIA

U.S.S.R. (Mezhrabpomfilm) 93m Silent BW

Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin

Screenplay: Osip Brik, I. Novokshenov

Photography: Anatoli Golovnya

Cast: Valéry Inkijinoff, I. Dedintsev, Aleksandr Chistyakov, Viktor Tsoppi, F. Ivanov, V. Pro, Boris Barnet, K. Gurnyak, I. Inkishanov, L. Belinskaya, Anel Sudakevich

Within a month of completing 1927: The End of St. Petersburg, Vsevolod Pudovkin was at work on this epic fable, apparently inspired both by I. Novokshonov’s original story of a herdsman who will rise to become a great leader, and by the prospect of shooting in virgin territory, exotic Outer Mongolia. Pudovkin’s State Film School classmate Valeri Inkizhinov plays the unnamed hero, a Mongol who learns to distrust capitalists when a Western fur trader cheats him out of a rare silver fox pelt. The year is 1918, and the Mongol falls in with Socialist partisans fighting against the imperialist British occupying army. Captured, he is condemned to be shot (for recognizing the word “Moscow”), but his life is saved when an ancient talisman is found on his person, a document that proclaims the bearer to be a direct descendant of Genghis Khan. The British install him as a puppet king, but he escapes to lead his people to a fantastic victory.

A curious mix of rip-roaring adventure filmmaking, Soviet socialist propaganda, and ethnographic documentary, Storm over Asia is never less than entertaining. It is distinguished by Pudovkin’s epic compositional sense, evident in the cavalry column fanning out to fill the horizon, and some striking, cubist-like montage sequences—as well as for its sardonic satire of Buddhist ritual and Western betrayal of faith. TCh

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1920s




BLACKMAIL (1929)

G.B. (BIP, Gainsborough) 96m BW

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Producer: John Maxwell

Screenplay: Alfred Hitchcock, from play by Charles Bennett

Photography: Jack E. Cox

Music: James Campbell, Reg Connelly

Cast: Anny Ondra, Sara Allgood, Charles Paton, John Longden, Donald Calthrop, Cyril Ritchard, Hannah Jones, Harvey Braban, Ex-Detective Sergeant Bishop

Steven jay schneider

Though Alfred Hitchcock laid down many of the themes he would return to throughout his career and staked his claim as master of the suspense genre with the silent The Lodger (1927), this 1929 picture really sealed his reputation and set him on the road to a remarkable career. Blackmail went into production as a silent movie but was rethought in midshoot as Britain’s first all-talkie; that this decision was made shows how ambitious Hitchcock was even at this stage of his career, but also that his talents were obvious enough for paymaster producers to fund technical innovations. One of Hitchcock’s greatest tricks was to be both avant-garde and commercial at the same time: here he uses newfangled technology of the sort many still suspected would be short-lived in the service of a melodrama that may be psychologically acute but still succeeds in delivering thrills (and titillation).

Alice White (Anny Ondra) quarrels with her policeman boyfriend Frank (John Longden) and impulsively accompanies a lecherous artist (Cyril Ritchard) to his apartment. When the heel tries to rape her, she stabs him in self-defense and gets away, though a breakfast-table conversation with her family becomes a reminder of the trauma as the word “knife” keeps stabbing at her and the sight of a bread knife nearly sends her into hysterics. Whereas other directors converting to talkies were working hard to ensure that every line of dialogue was recorded as if for an elocution demonstration, Hitchcock monkeys around with the soundtrack in this scene so that most of the conversation becomes an inaudible babble—the better to highlight the crystal-clear key word. This may be the moment when the talkies stopped just talking and singing and the real potential of sound as an addition to the director’s arsenal became apparent.

Stuck with an already-cast Czech actress whose English wasn’t up to standard, Hitchcock also experimented with dubbing, having Joan Barry off-camera reading the lines as Ondra mouthed them, an unusual (and rarely repeated) approach that allows for a successful synthesis of performance. Ondra, among the first of Hitchcock’s bedeviled blondes, is a remarkably fresh, engaging presence and turns the trick of making her innocent killer sympathetic while the slimy creep who blackmails her is painted as the real villain. KN

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1920s




CHELOVEK S KINOAPPARATOM (1929)

THE MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA

U.S.S.R. (VUFKU) 80m Silent BW

Director: Dziga Vertov

Screenplay: Dziga Vertov

Photography: Dziga Vertov

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Dziga Vertov (Denis Kaufman) began his career with newsreels, filming the Red Army as it fought during the Russian Civil War (1918–21) and screening the footage for audiences in villages and towns who boarded the “agit-trains.” The experience helped Vertov formulate his ideas about cinema, ideas shared by a group of like-minded young filmmakers who called themselves Kino-glaz (Cine-Eye). The group’s principles—the “honesty” of documentary as compared with fiction film, the “perfection” of the cinematic eye compared with the human eye—inform Vertov’s most extraordinary picture, the dazzling The Man with a Movie Camera.

In this film Vertov combines radical politics with revolutionary aesthetics to exhilarating, even giddy effect. The two components of filmmaking—camera and editing—function as equal (and gendered) partners. Vertov’s male cameraman (his brother Mikhail Kaufman) records a day in the life of the modern city—what Vertov called “life caught unawares”—while his female editor (wife Elizaveta Svilova) cuts and splices the footage, thus reformulating that life. By the end, Vertov has exploited every available device of filming and editing—slow motion, animation, multiple images, split-screen, zooms and reverse zooms, blurring focus, and freeze-frames—to create a textbook of film technique as well as a hymn to the new Soviet state.

The camera begins to roll as the city gradually awakens, its buses and trams emerging from their night-hangars and its empty streets gradually filling, and continues by tracking denizens of the city (mostly Moscow but with extensive footage shot in Kiev, Yalta, and Odessa) through their routines of work and play. A lifetime is compressed into that day, as the camera peers between a woman’s legs to watch a baby emerge, espies children entranced by a street conjuror, tracks an ambulance carrying an accident victim. New rituals supplant old as couples marry, separate, and divorce in a registry office instead of a church.

Vertov gives visual form to Marxist principles in a stunning montage that follows the transformation of handwork into mechanized labor (women progress from sewing by hand to sewing by machine, from abacus to cash register) and that lauds the speed, efficiency, indeed the joy of assembly-line labor. Workers use their new-found leisure to socialize in state-subsidized clubs and beer-halls, to play music and chess, to swim and sunbathe, pole-vault and kick soccer balls. Moscow’s “ordinary people” become stars of their own lives as they see themselves on screen. By the time Vertov bids an explosive farewell to the old by splitting the Bolshoi Theater in half, he has made his case for the revolutionary potential of cinema.

Ultimately, Vertov could not accommodate to Socialist Realism, and his career faltered. With The Man with a Movie Camera, however, he achieved his goal: a non-linear narrative form for cinema, a glorious tribute to everything that moviemaking can be. JW

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1920s




DIE BÜCHSE DER PANDORA (1929)

PANDORA’S BOX

Germany (Nero-Film) 97m Silent BW

Director: Georg Wilhelm Pabst

Producer: Seymour Nebenzal

Screenplay: Joseph Fleisler, Georg Wilhelm Pabst, from the plays Erdgeist and Die Büchse der Pandora by Frank Wedekind

Photography: Günther Krampf

Cast: Louise Brooks, Fritz Kortner, Francis Lederer, Carl Goetz, Krafft-Raschig, Alice Roberts, Gustav Diessl

Steven jay schneider

A lasting masterpiece from G.W. Pabst, adapted from Frank Wedekind’s “Lulu” plays, Pandora’s Box is remembered for the creation of an archetypal character in Lulu (Louise Brooks), an innocent temptress whose forthright sexuality somehow winds up ruining the lives of everyone around her. Though Pabst was criticized at the time for casting a foreigner in a role that was considered emblematically German, the main reason the film is remembered is the performance of American star Brooks. So powerful and sexual a presence that she never managed to make a transition from silent flapper parts to the talkie roles she deserved in a Hollywood dominated by Shirley Temple, Brooks is the definitive gamine vamp, modeling a sharp-banged bobbed haircut known as a “Louise Brooks” or “Lulu” to this day.

Presented in distinct theatrical “acts,” the story picks up Lulu in a bourgeois Berlin drawing room, where she is the adored mistress of widowed newspaper publisher Peter Schön (Fritz Kortner), friendly with her lover’s grown-up son Alwa (Franz Lederer) and even with the gnomish pimp Schigolch (Carl Goetz), who is either her father or her first lover. When Schön announces that he is remarrying, Lulu seems to be passed on to a nightclub strongman (Krafft-Raschig) but, provoked when Schön tells his son that “one does not marry” a woman like her, sets up an incident backstage at the music hall where she is dancing that breaks off the editor’s engagement and prompts her lover to marry her, though he knows that it will be the death of him.

Though her husband in effect commits suicide, Lulu ends up convicted of his murder. On the run with Alwa, Schigolch, and her lesbian admirer Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts), she makes it to an opium-hazed gambling boat on the Seine—where she is almost sold to an Egyptian brothel and Alwa is humiliatingly caught cheating—then finally to a Christmassy London, where she is stalked by Jack the Ripper (Gustav Diessl). Pabst surrounds Brooks with startling secondary characters and dizzying settings (the spectacle in the thronged wings of the cabaret eclipses anything taking place on stage), but it is the actress’s vibrant, erotic, scary, and heartbreaking personality that resonates with modern audiences. Brooks’s mix of image and attitude is so strong and fresh that she makes Madonna look like Phyllis Diller, and her acting style is strikingly unmannered for the silent era, unmediated by the trickery of mime or expressionist makeup. Her performance is also remarkably honest: never playing for easy sentiment, the audience is forced to recognize how destructive Lulu is even as we fall under her spell.

The original plays are set in 1888, the year of the Ripper murders, yet Pabst imagines a fantastical but contemporary setting, which seems to begin with the 1920s modernity of Berlin and then travels back in time to a foggy London for a death scene that is the cinema’s first great insight into the mindset of a serial killer. Lulu, turned streetwalker so that Schigolch can afford a last Christmas pudding, charms the reticent Jack, who throws aside his knife and genuinely tries not to kill again but is ultimately overwhelmed by the urge to stab. KN

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1930s


Contents

Der Blaue Engel (1930)

L’âge D’or (1930)

Zemlya (1930)

Little Caesar (1930)

All Quiet on The Western Front (1930)

à Nous La Liberté (1931)

Le Million (1931)

Tabu (1931)

Dracula (1931)

Frankenstein (1931)

City Lights (1931)

The Public Enemy (1931)

M (1931)

La Chienne (1931)

Vampyr (1932)

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Boudu Sauvé Des Eaux (1932)

I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932)

Trouble In Paradise (1932)

Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (1932)

Shanghai Express (1932)

Freaks (1932)

Me and My Gal (1932)

Zéro De Conduite (1933)

42Nd Street (1933)

Footlight Parade (1933)

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

She Done Him Wrong (1933)

Duck Soup (1933)

Queen Christina (1933)

Las Hurdes (1933)

King Kong (1933)

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)

Sons of The Desert (1933)

It’s a Gift (1934)

Triumph Des Willens (1934)

L’atalante (1934)

The Black Cat (1934)

Judge Priest (1934)

It Happened One Night (1934)

The Thin Man (1934)

Captain Blood (1935)

Mutiny on The Bounty (1935)

A Night at The Opera (1935)

The 39 Steps (1935)

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Top Hat (1935)

Une Partie De Campagne (1936)

Modern Times (1936)

Swing Time (1936)

My Man Godfrey (1936)

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)

Camille (1936)

Sabotage (1936)

Dodsworth (1936)

Things to Come (1936)

Le Roman D’un Tricheur (1936)

Captains Courageous (1937)

Ye Ban Ge Sheng (1937)

La Grande Illusion (1937)

Stella Dallas (1937)

The Life of Emile Zola (1937)

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

Snow White and The Seven Dwarves (1937)

The Awful Truth (1937)

Pépé Le Moko (1937)

Jezebel (1938)

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Angels with Dirty Faces (1938)

Olympia (1938)

La Femme Du Boulanger (1938)

Bringing Up Baby (1938)

Stagecoach (1939)

Zangiku Monogatari (1939)

Babes In Arms (1939)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Destry Rides Again (1939)

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Gone with The Wind (1939)

Le Jour Se Lève (1939)

Gunga Din (1939)

Ninotchka (1939)

La Règle Du Jeu (1939)

Wuthering Heights (1939)


1930s




DER BLAUE ENGEL (1930)

THE BLUE ANGEL

Germany (Universum Film A.G.) 99m BW

Language: German / English

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Producer: Erich Pommerr

Screenplay: Carl Zuckmayer, from the novel Professor Unrat by Heinrich Mann

Music: Frederick Hollander

Photography: Günther Rittau

Cast: Emil Jannings, Marlene Dietrich, Kurt Gerron, Rosa Valetti, Hans Albers, Reinhold Bernt, Eduard von Winterstein, Hans Roth, Rolf Müller, Roland Varno, Carl Balhaus, Robert Klein-Lörk, Charles Puffy, Wilhelm Diegelmann, Gerhard Bienert

Steven jay schneider

How appropriate that the film that launched Marlene Dietrich’s stardom (although it was far from her first role) should begin with a woman cleaning a window behind which is Dietrich’s poster as Lola Lola—and then measuring herself up against this idealized image. In this equation, it is the unglamorous reality of the street (or later, the stage) that is more on the mind of director Josef von Sternberg than that illusory ideal—setting the pattern for the pitiless logic of The Blue Angel.

The films Sternberg would go on to make with Dietrich in Hollywood are lush, baroque, often camp affairs. The Blue Angel—filmed simultaneously in somewhat different English- and German-language versions—shows the director still in his Expressionist phase, tailoring a dark, heavy style to emphasize Emil Jannings’s powerful histrionics. Jannings plays Professor Immanuel Rath, a respected schoolteacher who falls under the spell of Lola after he goes into the den of iniquity known as “The Blue Angel” to investigate the unhealthy obsession of his male students.

Taken from Heinrich Mann’s novel, it is a tale of decline, of downward mobility. In the course of the story, Rath will be reduced to a barely human clown—echoing the previous clown who functions as one of several ironic doubles for the doomed hero. Sternberg stresses, with exemplary and systematic rigor, the verticality of the film’s spatial relations: Rath is always in a low position looking up at the image of Lola (as when she throws her underpants down on his head), unless—in a parody of his authoritative position—he is put on display in the highest, cheapest seats by the theater’s sinister manager.

Lola is a classic femme fatale in so far as she lures men and then moves on when she tires of them—and, along the way, enjoys treating them like slaves. Yet there is also, for a time, a tender, loyal side in her relationship with Rath; when she reprises the famous “Falling in Love Again” we can almost accept her passive acceptance of her vagabond romantic destiny (“I know I’m not to blame”). AM

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1930s




L’ÂGE D’OR (1930)

THE AGE OF GOLD

France (Corinth) 60m BW

Language: French

Director: Luis Buñuel

Producer: Le Vicomte de Noailles

Photography: Albert Duverger

Screenplay: Luis Buñuel, Salvador Dalí

Music: Georges Van Parys

Cast: Gaston Modot, Lya Lys, Caridad de Laberdesque, Max Ernst, Josep Llorens Artigas, Lionel Salem, Germaine Noizet, Duchange, Bonaventura Ibáñez

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In 1928, two young Spaniards in Paris—twenty-eight-year-old Luis Buñuel and twenty-four-year-old Salvador Dalí—conceived an authentically Surrealist short film, Un Chien Andalou. Shot in two weeks, the film shocked, startled, and delighted the intelligentsia; and it encouraged the Vicomte de Noailles to give them the money to finance a feature film. Dalí, however, quickly left the project (though his name remains on the credit titles), and the resulting film, L’Âge d’Or, must be assumed to be Buñuel’s alone. In the director’s own words, “The sexual instinct and the sense of death form the substance of the film. It is a romantic film performed in full Surrealist frenzy.”

L’Âge d’Or is driven by the Surrealist notion of l’amour fou, and—somewhat denying Surrealist principles—has its own episodic story progression. It opens with a documentary on scorpions—actually a 1912 film to which Buñuel has added a scientific commentary. A group of starving bandits struggle out of their hut while four bishops perform strange rituals on a beach. A fade returns to the bishops now reduced to skeletons. Boats bring a crowd of distinguished individuals evidently to honor the bishops’ memory, but their ceremony is interrupted by sexual cries from a man and a woman. The man is arrested and dragged through the streets. Subsequent sequences are set in the home of the woman and at an elegant party in the grounds of a villa, where their amours are resumed but variously interrupted. Scenes of Surrealist frenzy lead into the final sequence as the Marquis de Sade’s libertines depart from their orgies at the Château de Sellini. Their leader is clearly portrayed as Jesus.

Not surprisingly, the film aroused ferocious emotions and polemics between the Surrealists and right-wing organizations; the League of Patriots and the Anti-Jewish League organized demonstrations that resulted in serious damage to the theater, police prohibition of further shows, and violent political and critical polemics. Notably, Henry Miller wrote extensively on the film and its creator: “Either you are made like the rest of civilized humanity, or you are proud and whole like Buñuel. And if you are whole and proud, then you are an anarchist, and throw bombs.”

Following Surrealist tenets of “not making art,” Buñuel demanded from his gifted cameraman Albert Duverger plain, simply lit visuals. He also rejected de Noailles’s request that Stravinsky should compose the music, instead creating mischievous juxtapositions of his scabrous images, romantic symphonies (Wagner, Schubert, Debussy), and the harsh ceremonial drums of his native Calanda, Spain.

L’Âge d’Or has bequeathed some of the cinema’s most unforgettable images: the mummified bishops; the painter Max Ernst as a frail, dying bandit; the cow on the bed of an elegant haute bourgeois villa; Lya Lys sucking the toe of a statue; the manic face of Gaston Modot; and the angelic Jesus and his gleefully exhausted fellow libertines on the castle drawbridge. It is a film that exists out of time, retaining its power to stir and shock into the twenty-first century and beyond. DRob

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1930s




ZEMLYA (1930)

EARTH

U.S.S.R. (Wufku) 75m Silent BW

Director: Aleksandr Dovzhenko

Screenplay: Aleksandr Dovzhenko

Photography: Daniil Demutsky

Music: Lev Revutsky (restored version)

Cast: Stepan Shkurat, Semyon Svashenko, Yuliya Solntseva, Yelena Maksimova, Nikolai Nademsky, I. Franko, Arkhip, Pyotr Masokha, V. Mikhajlov, Pavel Petrik, P. Umanets, E. Bondina, L. Lyashenko, M. Matsyutsia, Nikolai Mikhajlov

Steven jay schneider

Arguably, Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth is the single greatest achievement of the ever-more-impressive Soviet silent cinema. A modernist who drew deep inspiration from folk art—not unlike his contemporaries Marc Chagall and Sholem Aleichem—Dovzhenko’s ode to the beginning of collectivization in the Ukraine is a riot of delirious imagery of swaying wheat fields, ripening fruits, and stampeding horses. The arrival of a tractor is greeted with joy by the peasants, who begin to imagine new lives for themselves, but surviving kulaks (landowners) conspire to assassinate the inspiring young head of the Party’s village committee. His death, though, only makes the villagers stronger in their resolve; in a mind-boggling finale Dovzhenko brings together themes of birth, death, harvest, progress, and solidarity as the dead man is reunited with the land he loved so well.

No summary, however, can really do justice to the extraordinary sensuality of the film, a quality not much appreciated by the Soviet censors. Among the choice bits removed from earlier released versions are a scene in which, in a symbol of communion, the village men urinate in the tractor’s radiator, and a shot in which men draw strength and comfort by putting their hands inside the blouses of the women at their sides. Anyone looking for the origins of Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinema must start with Earth. RP

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1930s




LITTLE CAESAR (1930)

U.S. (First National) 79m BW

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Producer: Hal B. Wallis, Darryl F. Zanuck

Screenplay: Francis Edward Faragoh, Robert N. Lee, from novel by W.R. Burnett

Photography: Tony Gaudio

Music: Erno Rapee

Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Glenda Farrell, William Collier Jr., Sidney Blackmer, Ralph Ince, Thomas E. Jackson, Stanley Fields, Maurice Black, George E. Stone, Armand Kaliz, Nicholas Bela

Oscar nomination: Francis Edward Faragoh, Robert N. Lee (screenplay)

Steven jay schneider

Genre can be used to read history and interpret moments in time. Accordingly, Mervyn LeRoy’s Little Caesar helped to define the gangster movie while serving as an allegory of production circumstances because it was produced during the Great Depression. Within the film is inscribed a wholesale paranoia about individual achievement in the face of economic devastation. Leavening this theme alongside the demands of social conformity during the early 1930s means that LeRoy’s screen classic is far more than the simple sum of its parts.

Caesar “Rico” Bandello (Edward G. Robinson) is a small-stakes thief with a partner named Joe (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.). Recognizing a dead-end future, they move to the heart of Chicago, where Joe becomes an entertainer and falls in love with a dancer named Olga (Glenda Farrell). In contrast, Rico gets a taste of the “life” and enjoys it. Possessing a psychotic ruthlessness, he gradually looms as the new power on-scene before finally succumbing to an ill-tempered ego and the syndicate-breaking police. Gut shot and dying beneath an ad for Joe and Olga’s dinner act, Rico sputters some final words of self-determination, underlining how he won’t ever be caught because he lived according to the terms of his own ambition.

For audiences, Rico’s killer was undoubtedly a clear call of recent tensions about the state of the world at the time. Limited by the feature film’s structure, but not dulled by censorial practice in the days before the Production Code Administration, Little Caesar offers a scornful look at free enterprise taken to an extreme. Seen through the long view of history and the focus on ill-gotten gains, it’s a perfect corollary for Wall Street’s collapse, itself the result of poor regulation, mass speculation, and hysteria manipulated to benefit the few at the expense of the many.

Acting out to get a bigger piece of the pie, Rico expresses the wish for acceptance and the drive toward success in an otherwise indifferent world. Simultaneously terrorizing innocents and devastating the society he desires to control, he ends up illuminating the demands of power with homicidal shadows in this, a seminal film of the early sound era. GC-Q

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1930s




ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930)

U.S. (Universal Pictures) 131m BW

Language: English / French

Director: Lewis Milestone

Producer: Carl Laemmle Jr.

Screenplay: Erich Maria Remarque, Maxwell Anderson

Photography: Arthur Edeson, Karl Freund

Music: David Broekman, Sam Perry, Heinz Roemheld

Cast: Louis Wolheim, Lew Ayres, John Wray, Arnold Lucy, Ben Alexander, Scott Kolk, Owen Davis Jr., Walter Rogers, William Bakewell, Russell Gleason, Richard Alexander, Harold Goodwin, Slim Summerville, G. Pat Collins, Beryl Mercer

Oscars: Carl Laemmle Jr. (best picture), Lewis Milestone (director)

Oscar nominations: George Abbott, Maxwell Anderson, Del Andrews (screenplay), Arthur Edeson (photography)

Undiminished by time (and restored in 1998), this classic antiwar film, adapted from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, is a landmark for its vivid depiction of the tragedy of World War I from a German soldier’s point of view, for its technically inventive, spectacular battle scenes (at the dawn of sound in film), and for its prescient denunciation of fanatic nationalism and militarism. Lew Ayres, only twenty-one years old, became an international star for his beautifully natural performance as the schoolboy eager to serve but disillusioned by the futility and horror of war. The final shot—a close-up of his hand reaching out to a butterfly, quivering as a gunshot cracks and falling still in death—is an amazingly poignant image.

All Quiet on the Western Front was only the third film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, and war veteran Lewis Milestone received his second Oscar for direction. Interestingly, German censors passed the film despite violent protests by Nazi groups. In a cruel irony, Ayers’s career was all but ruined by public condemnation of his stand as a conscientious objector in World War II, despite his heroic service as a medic rather than a combatant. A 1979 TV remake was strong, if far less remarkable than the original. AE

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1930s




À NOUS LA LIBERTÉ (1931)

FREEDOM FOR US

France (Sonores Tobis) 104m BW

Language: French

Director: René Clair

Producer: Frank Clifford

Screenplay: René Clair

Photography: Georges Périnal

Music: Georges Auric

Cast: Raymond Cordy, Henri Marchand, Paul Ollivier, André Michaud, Rolla France, Germaine Aussey, Léon Lorin, William Burke, Vincent Hyspa, Jacques Shelly

Two conmen, Louis (Raymond Cordy) and Emile (Henri Marchand), plan their escape from prison. Upon breaking out, Emile is recaptured but Louis runs free and builds an empire on the assembly-line principle. Eventually Emile is paroled and heads to Louis’s factory. Within its walls he becomes smitten with a secretary named Jeanne (Rolla France) and asks his old friend for help. According to the rules of comeuppance, Louis is then threatened with discovery as an escaped felon, after which the two men earn lasting freedom as hobos on the road.

Unlike Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, a film later sued for plagiarism by Tobis, the production company of À Nous la Liberté, Rene Clair’s film is an exaltation of industrial society. Opening on an assembly line and closing in a mechanized factory, the fears often associated with modernization are wholly absent here. Instead these are substituted with values of loyalty and the comedy of circumstance.

Interestingly, much of the humor in À Nous la Liberté stems from carefully manipulated screen space and sequence. First the assembly line hiccups. Then a worker forgets his place, disrupts another worker, angers his boss, and so on. It’s a formula freed from dialogue and adopted directly from the silent cinema as a transitional vehicle into the talkies. GC-Q

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1930s




LE MILLION (1931)

THE MILLION

France (Sonores Tobis) 89m BW

Language: French

Director: René Clair

Screenplay: René Clair, from play by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemaud

Photography: Georges Périnal, Georges Raulet

Music: Armand Bernard, Philippe Parès, Georges Van Parys

Cast: Jean-Louis Allibert, Annabella, Raymond Cordy, Vanda Gréville, René Lefèvre, Paul Ollivier, Constantin Siroesco, Odette Talazac

Steven jay schneider

René Clair’s The Million opens on a Parisian rooftop. Two lovers flirt and retire to their respective apartments, after which the camera dollies along the skyline in a one-shot sequence using forced perspective, miniatures, and matte paintings. Such a tricky sequence demonstrates a profoundly advanced cinematic style while also revealing how Clair’s film is no throwaway musical comedy.

A poor artist named Michel (René Lefèvre) owes money to various creditors. Engaged to the pure-hearted Beatrice (Annabella), he disregards her to chase after the floozy Wanda (Vanda Gréville) and otherwise keeps up with his friend Prosper (Louis Allibert). When the gangster Grandpa Tulip (Paul Ollivier) races into the apartment building to avoid the police, Beatrice gives him an old jacket of Michel’s out of spite. Afterwards, Michel and Prosper realize that a lottery ticket they purchased is a millionaire’s prize—but the ticket is in the jacket Beatrice gave Grandpa Tulip, who in turn pawned it to the tenor Sopranelli (Constantin Siroesco), who will soon travel to America. Thus the caper comedy of The Million is set in motion. Mix-ups, misidentification, disguises, upsets, reconciliation, and musical numbers follow, all of it to bring Michel and Beatrice together and restore the lottery ticket to its rightful owner. Along the way a thug in tuxedo tails cries for a love song, a race for the jacket is scored to the sounds of a rugby match, and the opportunistic demands of Michel’s creditors and neighbors weigh in on his perceived riches.

Perhaps most remarkable among its virtues is the film’s integration of synch-sound recording. Expository dialogue is offered to still camera setups whereas lesser remarks, often viewed as whispers between characters, are left in silence. To cover these gaps in the spoken record, ambient music stitches together each set piece with occasional bursts of song. More fluid and visually dynamic than many early sound films, The Million is also more entertaining than many subsequent talkies. In large part this is a credit to Clair’s screenplay and deft direction, but it is also due to a willing cast carrying through the demands of a gentle fantasy. GC-Q

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1930s




TABU (1931)

U.S. (Murnau-Flaherty, Paramount) 84m Silent BW

Director: F.W. Murnau

Producer: F.W. Murnau

Screenplay: Robert J. Flaherty, F.W. Murnau

Photography: Floyd Crosby

Music: Hugo Riesenfeld, W. Franke Harling, Milan Roder, Chopin, Smetana

Cast: Reri, Matahi, Hitu, Jean, Jules, Ah Kong, Anne Chevalier

Oscar: Floyd Crosby (photography)

Tabu is the last film of F.W. Murnau, who was probably the greatest of all silent directors. He didn’t live long enough to make sound films, dying in an auto accident a few days after work on the musical score for this masterpiece was completed and a week before the film’s New York premiere. Filmed entirely in the South Seas in 1929 with a nonprofessional cast and gorgeous cinematography by Floyd Crosby, Tabu began as a collaboration with the great documentarist Robert Flaherty, who still rightly shares credit for the story. Clearly, though, the German romanticism of Murnau predominates, above all in the heroic poses of the islanders and the fateful diagonals in the compositions. As we now know, Flaherty was ultimately squeezed out of the project because Murnau, who had all the financial control, was not temperamentally suited to sharing directorial credit. This unfortunately has not prevented many commentators from continuing to miscredit Flaherty as a codirector.

Part of Murnau’s greatness was his capacity to encompass studio artifice—in such large productions as The Last Laugh (1924), Faust (1926), and Sunrise (1927)—as well as documentary naturalism in Burning Soil (1922), Nosferatu (1922), and Tabu. This versatility bridges both his German and American work. Tabu, shot in natural locations and strictly speaking neither German nor American, exhibits facets of both of these talents. The simple plot—the two “chapters” of the film are titled “Paradise” and “Paradise Lost”—is an erotic love story involving a young woman who becomes sexually taboo when she is selected by an elder, one of Murnau’s most chilling harbingers of doom, to replace a sacred maiden who has just died. An additional theme is the corrupting power of “civilization”—money in particular—on the innocent hedonism of the islanders. Murnau himself was in flight from the Hollywood studios when he made the picture, although Paramount wound up releasing it in 1931.

However dated some of Tabu’s ethnographic idealism may seem today, the film’s breathtaking beauty and artistry make it indispensable viewing, and the exquisite tragic ending—conceived musically and rhythmically as a gradually decelerating diminuendo—is one of the pinnacles of silent cinema. JRos

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1930s




DRACULA (1931)

U.S. (Universal) 75m BW

Language: English / Hungarian

Director: Tod Browning

Producer: E.M. Asher, Tod Browning, Carl Laemmle Jr.

Screenplay: Garrett Fort, from play by John L. Balderston and Hamilton Deane

Photography: Karl Freund

Music: Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Wagner

Cast: Bela Lugosi, Helen Chandler, David Manners, Dwight Frye, Edward Van Sloan, Herbert Bunston, Frances Dade, Joan Standing, Charles K. Gerrard, Tod Browning, Michael Visaroff

Steven jay schneider

Although Bram Stoker’s seminal 1897 vampire novel had been filmed by F.W. Murnau in 1922 as Nosferatu and director Tod Browning had cast Lon Chaney as a bogus vampire in the silent London After Midnight, this early talkie—shot in late 1930 and released on Valentine’s Day 1931—was the true beginning of the horror film as a distinct genre and the vampire movie as its most popular subgenre.

Cinematographer Karl Freund had a solid grounding in German Expressionist shadowmaking whereas Browning was the carnival barker king of American grotesquerie, so the film represents a synthesis of the two major strains of silent chills. Like such major American horror properties as The Cat and the Canary and The Bat, this Dracula comes to the screen not from the pages of classic gothic literature but direct from the stage: the primary sources of the screenplay are a pair of theatrical takes on Stoker’s novel, from Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston. The break-out star of the new genre is Bela Lugosi, who had played Dracula on Broadway and was finally cast in the film after the early death of Browning’s favored star, Chaney. It may be that the loss of Chaney took some of the spark out of Browning’s direction, which is actually less inspired than George Melford’s work on the simultaneously-shot (on the same sets, no less) Spanish version—though the latter suffers from the lack of an iconic Dracula and the fact that it represents exactly the shooting script, whereas the English-language Dracula was considerably tightened by an edit that took out twenty minutes of flab.

Prehistoric in cinema technique and stuck with a drawing-room-centered script, Browning’s film nevertheless retains much of its creaky, sinister power, spotlighting (literally, via tiny pinlights aimed at his evil eyes) Lugosi’s star-making turn as the vampire, squeezing Hungarian menace out of every syllable of phrases such as “Cheeldren of the naight, leesten to thaim” or “I nevair dreenk vine!” The film opens magnificently, with a snatch of Swan Lake and a rickety stagecoach taking us and estate agent Renfield (Dwight Frye) to Lugosi’s cobwebbed and vermin-haunted castle (an armadillo nestles in a Transylvanian crypt). Dracula strides through a curtain of cobwebs, the vampire twitching with bloodlust as his guest cuts his finger while carving bread, and three soulless vampire brides descend upon the unwary visitor.

Once the story hops disappointingly over a dangerous sea voyage (snippets of stock footage) and the Count relocates to London, Lugosi calms down. But Edward Van Sloan is staunch as the vampire-killing Professor Abraham Van Helsing, the forgotten Helen Chandler is frailly charming as the bled-dry and semivampirized heroine Mina, and Frye steals every scene that isn’t nailed down when Renfield transforms into a fly-eating, giggling maniac. Castle Dracula, with its five-story Gothic windows, is the art direction highlight, but the London scenes offer an impressive staircase and catacombs for Dracula’s English lair. Browning falters at the last, however, with a weak climax in which the Count is defeated far too easily, his death conveyed by an offscreen groan as he is impaled. KN

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1930s




FRANKENSTEIN (1931)

U.S. (Universal) 71m BW

Director: James Whale

Producer: E.M. Asher, Carl Laemmle Jr.

Screenplay: John L. Balderston, Francis Edward Faragoh, Garrett Fort, from play by Peggy Webling and novel by Mary Shelley

Photography: Arthur Edeson, Paul Ivano

Music: Bernhard Kaun

Cast: Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff, Edward Van Sloan, Frederick Kerr, Dwight Frye, Lionel Belmore, Marilyn Harris

Steven jay schneider

Frankenstein is the single most important horror film ever made. James Whale hacked out of Mary Shelley’s unwieldy novel a fable of an overreaching scientist and his abused, childlike outcast of a monster. Though Colin Clive’s neurotic Frankenstein and Dwight Frye’s hunchbacked dwarf assistant are definitive, the career breakout of the film is William Henry Pratt, a forty-two-year-old Englishman who turned his back on a privileged upbringing and emigrated to become a truck driver in Canada and a small-time actor in the United States.

Universal’s makeup genius Jack Pierce devised the flattop, the neck terminals, the heavy eyelids, and the elongated, scarred hands, while Whale outfitted the creature with a shabby suit like those worn by the ex-soldier hoboes then riding the rails and added the clumping asphalt-spreader’s boots. But it was Pratt who turned the Monster from a snarling bogeyman into a yearning, sympathetic, classic character whose misdeeds are accidental (drowning a little girl) or justified (hanging the dwarf who has tortured him with fire). In the opening credits, the Monster is billed as being played by “?”; only at the end of the film were audiences told it was a fellow by the name of Boris Karloff—Pratt’s stage handle—who had terrified, moved, and inspired them.

Frankenstein claims a number of wondrous theatrical set pieces: the “creation,” with lightning crackling around the tower and the Monster raised to the angry heavens on an operating table; the Monster’s first appearance (seen from behind, he turns to show us his face and the camera stutters toward him); the heartbreaking sequence with the little girl who doesn’t float; the primal attack on the heroine in her boudoir on her wedding day (a rare bit taken from the book); and the pursuit of the Monster by a mob of peasants with flaming torches, winding up in the old mill where creator and creation confront each other in one of the earliest horror movie inferno finales. The Universal horror cycle runs the gamut from perfection through pastiche and pulp to parody, but Frankenstein remains chilly and invigorating, the cornerstone of its entire genre. KN

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1930s




CITY LIGHTS (1931)

U.S. (Charles Chaplin) 87m Silent BW

Director: Charles Chaplin

Producer: Charles Chaplin

Screenplay: Charles Chaplin

Photography: Gordon Pollock, Roland Totheroh, Mark Marklatt

Music: Charles Chaplin, José Padilla

Cast: Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers, Al Ernest Garcia, Hank Mann, Charles Chaplin

Convinced that speech would mar the beauty of cinema, its greatest mime exponent, Charlie Chaplin, agonized over the introduction of sound technology and determined to ignore it, against all advice. Presented as “a comedy romance in pantomime,” his defiantly silent 1931 film City Lights was in every way a triumph, its heartrending melodrama and hilarity withstanding audiences’ craving for talkies. Nevertheless, after shooting the film, Chaplin incorporated sound effects and composed and conducted his own score, as he would continue to do in his later pictures.

The Little Tramp is touched by a blind flower seller (graceful Virginia Cherrill) and saves an eccentric millionaire from suicide. His gentle wooing of the girl and his determination to restore her sight propel him into a variety of jobs that go awry—like the memorable “fixed” boxing bout—while his on–off relationship with the drunken, unpredictable tycoon provides a parallel string of zany situations. As ever in Chaplin’s silent films, there is a deftly choreographed comedic eating scene—here a party streamer entwined in the oblivious Charlie’s spaghetti—and a slapstick misadventure with the law. Beautifully acted, this quite perfect balancing act between laughter and eloquent pathos culminates in a deeply moving finish. One of the real, landmark greats. AE

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1930s




THE PUBLIC ENEMY (1931)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 83m BW

Director: William A. Wellman

Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck

Screenplay: Harvey F. Thew, from story by John Bright & Kubec Glasmon

Photography: Devereaux Jennings

Music: David Mendoza

Cast: James Cagney, Edward Woods, Jean Harlow, Joan Blondell, Beryl Mercer, Donald Cook, Mae Clarke, Mia Marvin, Leslie Fenton, Robert Emmett O’Connor, Murray Kinnell, Snitz Edwards, Rita Flynn, Frank Coghlan Jr., Frankie Darro

Oscar nomination: John Bright, Kubec Glasmon (screenplay)

William Wellman’s melodramatic chronicle of the rise and fall of gangster Tom Powers (James Cagney) is the greatest of the early 1930s gangster films. The genre’s sometime sympathetic portrayal of ruthless criminals eager for the American dream of success at the deliberate and unlawful cost of others prompted the institution of the Production Code Administration to supervise the dubious moral value in Hollywood films.

Raised in Chicago slums, Powers turns to crime at an early age, graduating as a young man to armed robbery and the murder of a policeman. Later, he becomes involved in bootlegging, making real money for the first time. Though his brother and mother plead with him to go straight, Tom rises in the gang, but after being badly wounded in a battle with rivals, he agrees to rejoin his family. He is taken from the hospital and murdered, his body dumped on the doorstep of his family home.

With its simplistic moralism, the plot of The Public Enemy has dated poorly. But Cagney remains powerful and energetic as Powers, dominating the screen in every scene and setting the pattern for all gangster films to come, including The Godfather series. Wellman directs the film with a strong visual sense, designing memorable scenes such as one in which Powers, in a sudden fit of anger, shoves a grapefruit into girlfriend Kitty’s face. RBP

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1930s




M (1931)

Germany (Nero-Film AG) 117m BW

Language: German

Director: Fritz Lang

Producer: Seymour Nebenzal

Screenplay: Egon Jacobson, Fritz Lang

Photography: Fritz Arno Wagner

Music: Edvard Grieg

Cast: Peter Lorre, Ellen Widmann, Inge Landgut, Otto Wernicke, Theodor Loos, Gustaf Gründgens, Friedrich Gnaß, Fritz Odemar, Paul Kemp, Theo Lingen, Rudolf Blümner, Georg John, Franz Stein, Ernst Stahl-Nachbaur, Gerhard Bienert

Steven jay schneider

In the early 1930s, MGM’s production genius Irving Thalberg assembled all his writers and directors for a screening of Fritz Lang’s German thriller M, then criticized them en masse for not making films as innovative, exciting, profound, and commercial as this. Of course, Thalberg admitted, if anyone had pitched the studio a story about a serial killer of children who is ultimately a tragic victim and accuses all strata of society of a corruption deeper than his psychosis, they would have been kicked off the lot immediately.

Whereas Hollywood first saw sound pictures as best suited to all-singing musicals and all-talking drawing room theatrical adaptations, a generation of European filmmakers understood the new medium’s potential for thrills and psychological effects. Inspired perhaps by the theme of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1927 silent The Lodger and the techniques of his 1929 talkie Blackmail, Lang—who had ended his silent film career with Metropolis (1927) and Woman in the Moon (1929), both considered costly flops before their achievements were recognized—set out to re-establish himself as a popular artist. Nevertheless, M is an unusual piece of storytelling, presenting a series of montage-like scenes (often with voice-over narration, a new device) that add up to a portrait of a German city in terror. The cause of the uproar is Franz Becker (Peter Lorre), a pudgy young man who compulsively whistles an air from Edvard Grieg’s “Hall of the Mountain King” as he approaches the children he murders (and, it is implied, molests). His crimes are conveyed by striking, pathetic images like a lost balloon floating against telephone wires or an abandoned ball. Establishing conventions still being used by serial-killer movies, Lang and scenarist Thea von Harbou intercut the pathetic life of the murderer with the frenzy of the police investigation into the outrageous crimes, and pay attention to such side issues as press coverage of the killings, vigilante action as an innocent asked the time by children is suddenly surrounded by an angry mob, and the political pressure that comes down from the politicians and hinders as much as encourages the police. In a cynical touch, the police crack down on all criminal activities in order to catch the killer, prompting the shadow society of professional crooks to track him down like an animal themselves.

In the powerful finale, Becker is put on trial by the underworld and pleads his case on the surprisingly moving grounds that his accusers have only chosen to commit crimes whereas he is compelled to commit them. Though the film establishes Inspector Karl “Fatty” Lohmann (Otto Wernicke)—who would return to take on Lang’s eponymous archfiend (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) in The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933)—and black-gloved criminal kingpin Schranker (Gustaf Gründgens) as traditional cop-and-crook antagonists, Lorre’s desperate, clear-eyed, animal-like impulse murderer is the final voice of M, forcing his persecutors (and us) to look into ourselves for the seeds of a psychosis that equals his own. Creatively emphasizing the technological developments in film sound, Lang has the killer heard before he is seen (allegedly, the director dubbed Lorre’s whistling) and identified by a blind witness. KN

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1930s




LA CHIENNE (1931)

THE BITCH

France (Jean Renoir, Braunberger-Richebé) 91m BW

Language: French

Director: Jean Renoir

Producer: Charles David, Roger Richebé

Screenplay: André Girard, from novel by Georges de La Fouchardière

Photography: Theodor Sparkuhl

Music: Eugénie Buffet

Cast: Michel Simon, Janie Marèze, Georges Flamant, Roger Gaillard, Romain Bouquet, Pierre Desty, Mlle Doryans, Lucien Mancini, Jane Pierson, Argentin, Max Dalban, Jean Gehret, Magdeleine Bérubet

Steven jay schneider

The first significant film of Jean Renoir’s career, La Chienne inaugurated the run of masterpieces he directed in the 1930s, his finest decade. It also gave that most gloriously idiosyncratic of all French actors, Michel Simon, his first major role. Adapted from a novel by Georges de la Fouchardière, the film would later be remade by Fritz Lang as Scarlet Street (1945). But where Lang’s film is mesmerizing for its aloof detachment and laid-out tensions of a psychological case study, Renoir plunges us into the gamy tumult and vitality of his native Montmartre.

Simon plays a middle-aged bank clerk, Maurice Legrand, despised at work and oppressed by a shrewish wife, who finds solace in his amateur passion for painting. Along the way he becomes obsessed with a young prostitute, Lulu (Janie Marèze), who exploits him at the urging of her pimp Dédé (Georges Flamant). Lulu milks him for cash and passes off his paintings as her own. But when Legrand catches her with Dédé and murders her in a jealous rage, the pimp is executed for the crime. Legrand becomes a tramp, his stolen paintings selling for large sums.

Shrugging off the limitations of early sound techniques, Renoir shot his exteriors on location in Montmartre, lending the film a rich visual and aural texture. As always with Renoir at his best, we get a powerful sense of off-screen space—of life going on, complex and abundant, around and between the events of the story. As Lulu, Marèze gives a performance of unabashed sensuality, feral and languid, that makes her early death all the more regrettable—she died in a car crash two weeks after shooting was completed.

Still, it is Michel Simon, avidly seizing his opportunity, who walks off with the film. Hankering after Lulu, his jowls quivering with resignation, Legrand is at once ludicrous and pitiable. Yet he brings to his scenes with Lulu the animal urgency of a man grasping a late, unlooked-for chance at sexual abandon. The pathos of his performance, and the warmth of Renoir’s sympathetic gaze, lifts La Chienne out of the realm of petty melodrama, turning the banal story into something moving and universal. PK

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1930s




VAMPYR (1932)

THE VAMPIRE

Germany (Tobis Klangfilm) 83m BW

Language: German

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Producer: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Julian West

Screenplay: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Christen Jul, from the short story “Carmilla” by Sheridan Le Fanu

Photography: Rudolph Maté, Louis Née

Music: Wolfgang Zeller

Cast: Julian West, Maurice Schutz, Rena Mandel, Sybille Schmitz, Jan Hieronimko, Henriette Gérard, Albert Bras, N. Babanini, Jane Mora

Steven jay schneider

The greatness of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first sound film derives partly from its handling of the vampire theme in terms of sexuality and eroticism, and partly from its highly distinctive, dreamy look, but it also has something to do with the director’s radical recasting of narrative form. Synopsizing the film not only betrays but also misrepresents it: While never less than mesmerizing, it confounds conventions for establishing point of view and continuity and invents a narrative language all its own. Some of the moods and images conveyed by this language are truly uncanny: the long voyage of a coffin from the apparent viewpoint of the corpse inside; a dance of ghostly shadows inside a barn; a female vampire’s expression of carnal desire for her fragile sister; an evil doctor’s mysterious death by suffocation in a flour mill; and a protracted dream sequence that manages to dovetail eerily into the narrative proper.

Financed and produced by a Dutch cinephile, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg—who was cast in the leading role of David Gray under the pseudonym of Julian West—Vampyr was freely adapted from a short story by Sheridan Le Fanu, “Carmilla,” that appeared in his collection Through a Glass Darkly (not a novel, as stated erroneously in the film’s credits). Like most of Dreyer’s other sound features, it flopped commercially when it came out, then went on to become something of a horror and fantasy (as well as art movie) staple, despite never fitting snugly or unambiguously in any of these generic categories.

The remarkable soundtrack, created entirely in a studio, in contrast to the images, which were all filmed on location, is an essential part of the film’s voluptuous and haunting otherworldliness. Vampyr was originally released by Dreyer in four separate versions—French, English, German, and Danish. Most circulating prints now contain portions of two or three of these versions, although the dialogue is pretty sparse. If you’ve never seen a Dreyer film and wonder why many critics regard him as possibly the greatest of all filmmakers, this chilling horror fantasy is the perfect place to begin to understand. JRos

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1930s




LOVE ME TONIGHT (1932)

U.S. (Paramount) 104m BW

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

Producer: Rouben Mamoulian

Screenplay: Samuel Hoffenstein, Waldemar Young, George Marion Jr. from the play Tailor in the Château by Paul Armont and Lepold Marchand

Photography: Victor Milner

Music: Richard Rodgers, John Leipold

Cast: Maurice Chevalier, Jeanette MacDonald, Charles Ruggles, Charles Butterworth, Myrna Loy, C. Aubrey Smith, Elizabeth Patterson, Ethel Griffies, Blanche Frederici, Joseph Cawthorn, Robert Greig, Bert Roach

Steven jay schneider

As with so many of this sadly underrated director’s finest films, the delightful thing about this masterly variation on the romantic Ruritanian musical is the way Rouben Mamoulian manages to debunk, through an idiosyncratic combination of irreverent humor and technical innovation, the traditions of the very genre he is simultaneously helping to establish and expand. Here he contrives to outstrip the achievements of the then-widely-acclaimed masters of the form—Ernst Lubitsch and René Clair—without even seeming to make an effort; he makes the whole thing feel so wonderfully relaxed, good-natured, and somehow perfect. True, he is helped no end by having Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s supremely witty yet hummably melodious songs to work with; but it’s the unforced sense of sophisticated fun coexisting with real cinematic invention that reveal the Mamoulian touch, considerably lighter than that in most Lubitsch movies.

Jeannette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier must also take credit for playing their respective romantic leads—the haughty but bored (and, let it be said, sexually frustrated) princess holed up in a fusty chateau, and the visiting tailor (“the best in Paris”) sufficiently aroused by her to forget his lowly status—with emotional commitment and an engagingly delicate parodic irony. The supporting cast is top-notch, too: Myrna Loy, Charles Ruggles, Charles Butterworth, and the inimitable Sir C. Aubrey Smith (the last three especially delightful when improbably enlisted to sing, solo, verses of “Mimi”) are merely the most memorable. But what is really impressive about Love Me Tonight is how music, dance, dialogue, performance, decor, lighting, camera work, editing, and special effects are all combined to create a cogent comic/dramatic whole in which each element serves narrative, characterization, and theme. The “Isn’t It Romantic?” sequence, for example, which starts with Chevalier and a client in Paris, and proceeds with the song being passed via various minor characters (including, at one point, a whole platoon of soldiers!) to arrive finally at the lonely MacDonald’s boudoir—the first link between the future lovers, who have yet to meet—is impressive; so, too, is the final, climactic chase sequence (as exhilaratingly constructed as anything by the Soviets and with far more wit). In short, an enormously entertaining masterpiece. GA

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1930s




BOUDU SAUVÉ DES EAUX (1932)

BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING

France (Pathé, Sirius) 90m BW

Language: French

Director: Jean Renoir

Producer: Jean Gehret, Michel Simon

Screenplay: Jean Renoir, Albert Valentin, from play by René Fauchois

Photography: Léonce-Henri Burel, Marcel Lucien

Music: Léo Daniderff, Raphael, Johann Strauss

Cast: Michel Simon, Charles Granval, Marcelle Hainia, Severine Lerczinska, Jean Gehret, Max Dalban, Jean Dasté, Jane Pierson, Georges D’Arnoux, Régine Lutèce, Jacques Becker

Renoir had already made eleven films before being selected to direct Boudu Saved from Drowning by Michel Simon, who had decided to produce this adaptation of a stage play by René Fauchois. The pair had worked together three times previously, they were both the same age as the birth of cinema, and they were both rising personalities with a sense of freedom and a desire to explore unknown territories.

So, like a monstrous Aphrodite, Simon’s Boudu the tramp was reborn from the water, brought back to a life he wanted to leave by the kindness of the Lestingois family, its generosity, and its wealth. Of course, comparisons with Charlie Chaplin’s character in a similar situation come to mind here, and the two tramps do have a lot in common—the survivor’s sense of life, the amoral relationship with society’s rules, the focus on rich versus poor, and the urge for sex. But it is the differences between the two that reveal the power of the recipe above, about the film’s connection and rupture with vaudeville (the rules of bourgeois theater), and about the body and diction of Simon.

In the character of Boudu, Simon’s voice and physical presence work together as an eruption of carnality, a dissonant yet mesmerizing cello disturbing the happy quartet of the nice home filled with nice people wishing for the world to keep spinning round. Boudu’s ultimate return to the archaic spring is not only the smiling twist of an epicurean tale but also a troubling assessment of the hypothesis of a continuity between the oldest past and a future toward which the river flows. J-MF

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1930s




I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932)

U.S. (Vitaphone, Warner Bros.) 93m BW

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Producer: Hal B. Wallis

Screenplay: Howard J. Green, from memoir by Robert E. Burns

Photography: Sol Polito

Music: Leo F. Forbstein, Bernhard Kaun

Cast: Paul Muni, Glenda Farrell, Helen Vinson, Noel Francis, Preston Foster, Allen Jenkins, Berton Churchill, Edward Ellis, David Landau, Hale Hamilton, Sally Blane, Louise Carter, Willard Robertson, Robert McWade, Robert Warwick

Oscar nominations: Hal B. Wallis (best picture), Paul Muni (actor), Nathan Levinson (sound)

The grandpappy of prison movies, Mervyn LeRoy’s searing indictment of penal practices common in its day was, with its titanic performance from Paul Muni (in a neat reversal from his thuggish role as Scarface the same year), arguably the finest of the hard-hitting social-protest dramas Warner Brothers specialized in during the 1930s.

Based on an autobiographical story by Robert E. Burns, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang vividly depicts an innocent man brutalized and criminalized as a down-on-his-luck World War I veteran is railroaded into shackles and hard labor in the Deep South. Having broken out once to make a decent new life, he is betrayed, escapes again, and is condemned to life as a broken fugitive. Rock splitting, sadistic guards, escapes (including the seminal pursuit by baying bloodhounds through a swamp), solitary confinement—the vocabulary of the behind-bars genre was laid down here. Worth seeing just to appreciate how often it has been referenced (most recently in the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou? [2000]), the film is dated but still powerfully disturbing down to the famously haunting last line. As Muni’s fugitive Jim slips away into the night, his lover plaintively calls out “How do you live?” From the darkness comes the tragically ironic whisper, “I steal.” AE

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1930s




TROUBLE IN PARADISE (1932)

U.S. (Paramount) 83m BW

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Producer: Ernst Lubitsch

Screenplay: Grover Jones, from the play The Honest Finder by Aladar Laszlo

Photography: Victor Milner

Music: W. Franke Harling

Cast: Miriam Hopkins, Kay Francis, Herbert Marshall, Charles Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton, C. Aubrey Smith, Robert Greig

Steven jay schneider

After his emigration from Europe and arrival in Hollywood at the tail end of the silent era, Ernst Lubitsch quickly established himself as a master of the technical with an ear for comedic pacing. Admirers called his particular talents the “Lubitsch Touch,” but Lubitsch didn’t work with any set formula or system. Rather, he brought from Europe a sophisticated sensibility that sent gentle shock waves through Hollywood, changing the tone of American comedies and leading to the rise of the “screwball” antics of Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder, both of whom revered him.

But that same sophistication kept Lubitsch from veering precipitously toward slapstick or more overt physical humor. That famed “Lubitsch Touch” indicated his deft method of delivering sexual politics with a barely discernible wink, and that meant a clever way with words and stories to subvert, surmount, or gently prod the relatively prudish (though still pre-Hays Code) American standards.

The most carnal and clever aspects of the “Lubitsch Touch” are firmly on display from the first frame of Trouble in Paradise, one of the director’s first sound features. The title appears initially only in parts, so that for a moment the words “Trouble in . . .” linger over a shot of a bed. By the time the word “. . . Paradise” finally pops up, Lubitsch has already made clear what he meant by “Trouble in Paradise”: The film may as well be titled “Trouble in Bed.” Of course, Trouble in Paradise is only indirectly about sex, but that is typically the case with romantic comedies, of which Lubitsch was a significant pioneer.

Herbert Marshall and Miriam Hopkins are a match made in heaven. Playing expert thieves and con artists Lily (Hopkins) and Gaston Monescu (Marshall), their courtship consists of robbing each other blind one fateful night in Venice. Over dinner they trade tentative praise, revealing stolen personal items in lieu of more traditional flirtation. Theirs is a romance built on deception, an ironic aphrodisiac, and they don’t think anything of the other’s chosen profession. “Baron, you are a crook,” asserts Lily, “May I have the salt?” Life is good until the pair set their eyes on heiress Madame Mariette Colet (Kay Francis). Lily sees a big bank account, but Gaston sees more. He tries to seduce his way into her safe, but finds his feelings for the heiress keep getting in the way.

The film’s plot machinations are needed to toss the characters together, but Trouble in Paradise is less concerned with the big con than it is with companionship. Gaston initially wants Madame Colet’s money, but all the lonely heiress wants is Gaston, and soon the two become lovers, much to Lily’s chagrin. But Trouble in Paradise is nowhere near as predictable as it seems. Love is something that can’t be stolen or bought, which explains the quandary of Lubitsch’s compulsively criminal lead characters. As much as Gaston and Lily covet the acquisition of Madame Colet’s fortune, even at the cost of their relationship, they realize their uniquely larcenous dispositions make them particularly well suited for one another. JKl

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1930s




SCARFACE: THE SHAME OF A NATION (1932)

U.S. (Caddo, United Artists) 99m BW

Director: Howard Hawks

Producer: Howard Hawks, Howard Hughes

Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Fred Pasley, Seton I. Miller, John Lee Mahin, W.R. Burnett, Seton I. Miller, from novel by Armitage Trail

Music: Shelton Brooks, W.C. Handy

Photography: Lee Garmes, L. William O’Connell

Cast: Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, Karen Morley, Osgood Perkins, C. Henry Gordon, George Raft, Vince Barnett, Boris Karloff, Purnell Pratt, Tully Marshall, Inez Palange, Edwin Maxwell

Steven jay schneider

Introducing one of cinema history’s most notorious, Machiavellian monsters in the perverted Horatio Alger myth that lies at the heart of every gangster film, Scarface: The Shame of a Nation stands as the peak of its genre. And it’s a telling sign that Brian De Palma’s 1983 version of the film, despite all the accolades accorded it, does nothing to diminish the power of Howard Hawks’s original. On the contrary, like Shakespeare at his best (Macbeth might be the most obvious reference here), the film’s seductive combination of fascination and revulsion with its corrupted protagonist and his equally corrupted world makes up the very fabric of the drama.

Completed before Hollywood’s conservative Production Code became more rigidly enforced in 1934, ex-journalist Ben Hecht’s screenplay uses the Al Capone legend as source material—staging recreations of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and the murder of Big Jim Colosimo—to show Prohibition-era Chicago as a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah. Amorality is rampant: Cops are brutal and on the take, journalists are cynical muckrakers. In contrast, the Capone-like protagonist Tony “Scarface” Camonte (Paul Muni) is at least frank in his greedy quest for power and the almighty dollar.

The ultimate irony of Scarface is that everything goes well as long as Tony treats his killing spree as purely business. The moment his emotions come into play, he’s doomed. Much can be made of the strange twist in the plot when Tony starts losing control because of his violent jealousy concerning the love affair between his sister Cesca (Ann Dvorak) and his best friend Guino Rinaldo (George Raft). This could stem from incestuous feelings for his sister, or indicate a repressed homosexual bond with his friend. Hawks effectively underlines Tony’s road to ruin with heavy symbolism, achieved via expressive lighting and street signs. The gangster is initially seen as a Nosferatu-like silhouette on the wall as he commits his first murder. At the end, his final showdown is marked by cross-shaped shadows and his dead body lying in the gutter under a travel sign that reads, ironically, “The world is yours.” MT

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1930s




SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932)

U.S. (Paramount) 84m BW

Languages: English / French / Cantonese / German

Director: Josef von Sternberg

Screenplay: Jules Furthman

Photography: Lee Garmes

Music: W. Franke Harling

Cast: Marlene Dietrich, Clive Brook, Anna May Wong, Warner Oland, Eugene Pallette, Lawrence Grant, Louise Closser Hale, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Emile Chautard

Oscar: Lee Garmes (photography)

Oscar nominations: (best picture), Josef von Sternberg (director)

Steven jay schneider

In the seven films he made with her, Josef von Sternberg took his obsession with Marlene Dietrich to ever more extreme lengths of intensity and stylization, until both star and story were all but subsumed in a welter of spectacle and design. Coming at the midpoint of the cycle, Shanghai Express holds the elements in near-perfect balance.

Sternberg loved to treat his films as controlled experiments in the play of light and shadow, so a plot whose action is largely confined to the eponymous train suited him perfectly. The story, such as it is, concerns a train journey from Peking to Shanghai, interrupted by a bandit attack. But the subject of the film is Dietrich’s face, on which it plays an endless series of variations: veiled, shadowed, wreathed with smoke, nestling in furs or feathers, framed in intricate patterns of black on white. Dietrich herself, as the “notorious China coaster,” Shanghai Lily, remains enigmatic, her eyes hooded and watchful, as Sternberg—and his regular cinematographer, Lee Garmes—use her face as an exquisite screen on which to project the appropriate emotions.

The setting of Shanghai Express, constructed in the studio artifice that Sternberg always preferred, is an elaborately conceived and utterly fictitious China, embodied in the film’s opening sequence: a huge, dazzlingly white locomotive steams out of Peking Station and straight down the middle of a narrow street seething with lampshade-hatted coolies, stallholders, children, and animals. Years later, Sternberg visited China for the first time and was gratified to discover that the reality differed completely.

Clive Brook as Lily’s ex-lover, a British army captain, plays the kind of staunchly traditional Englishman beside whose stiff upper lip steel-reinforced concrete would seem flabby, and Anna May Wong is no less enjoyably cartoonish as the embodiment of feline Eastern guile. But the film belongs to Sternberg and Dietrich, and the strange fetishistic chemistry between them. Together they created something deliriously unique in cinema; apart they could never quite recapture the same magic. PK

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1930s




FREAKS (1932)

U.S. (MGM) 64m BW

Director: Tod Browning

Producer: Tod Browning

Screenplay: Clarence Aaron “Tod” Robbins, from his novel Spurs

Photography: Merritt B. Gerstad

Cast: Wallace Ford, Leila Hyams, Olga Baclanova, Roscoe Ates, Henry Victor, Harry Earles, Daisy Earles, Rose Dione, Daisy Hilton, Violet Hilton, Schlitze, Josephine Joseph, Johnny Eck, Frances O’Connor, Peter Robinson

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From its original conception as a horror movie exceeding all expectations, something more disturbing than anything seen before (via Dwain Esper’s exploitation of it under such dubious and misleading titles as Forbidden Love, Monster Show, and Nature’s Mistakes), to its revival as an avant-garde film in the tradition of Luis Buñuel and Alain Robbe-Grillet, Tod Browning’s Freaks has been classed as everything from horror to art house to documentary (because of its realism as expressed in the movie’s use of “real freaks”). Nevertheless, despite its originality of conception and design, and its startling ability to both move and frighten audiences, Freaks has remained to this day an underappreciated film.

Freaks opens with a carnival barker addressing some curious spectators. After the crowd catches sight of the female sideshow freak nearby, several women scream and the barker starts telling her story. Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), a beautiful trapeze artist with the carnival, is adored by a midget named Hans (Harry Earles). But Cleopatra is having an affair with Hercules (Henry Victor), the Strong Man, and the couple devise a plot to get their hands on Hans’s recently-inherited fortune: Cleopatra will marry the midget she despises and then poison him. During an unforgettable wedding ceremony-cum-initiation ritual, Cleopatra rebuffs the assembled freaks (when casting the film, Browning had the largest conglomeration of professional freaks ever assembled trying out for roles), teasing them mercilessly and calling them “dirty” and “slimy.” Back in her wagon she poisons Hans’s drink, but her plan is foiled and she is attacked by the freaks, who have banded together to exact a brutal revenge. Finally returning to the carnival barker in the present, we now see the result of the freaks’ attack on Cleopatra: she has been turned into a legless, half-blind stump—a squawking chicken woman. A final scene, tacked on later as the studio insisted on a happy ending, shows Hans living like a millionaire in an elegant house, reconciled with his midget ex-girlfriend Frieda (Daisy Earles).

But no mere plot summary can do justice to this alarming yet profound movie, which truly must be seen to be believed. It is a supreme oddity (freak?) of world cinema considered by many to be the most remarkable film in the career of a director whose credits include the original version of Dracula (1931). BH

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1930s




ME AND MY GAL (1932)

U.S. (Fox) 79m BW

Director: Raoul Walsh

Screenplay: Philip Klein, Barry Conners, Arthur Kober

Photography: Arthur C. Miller

Music: James F. Hanley

Cast: Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, Marion Burns, George Walsh, J. Farrell MacDonald, Noel Madison, Henry B. Walthall, Bert Hanlon, Adrian Morris, George Chandler

Set in Manhattan, Me and My Gal is about a soft-hearted, none-too-brainy cop (Spencer Tracy) who romances a chowder-house waitress (Joan Bennett) and, through dumb luck, catches a notorious gangster who has conveniently chosen her sister’s attic to hole up in. Raoul Walsh and his writers apparently took this rickety premise as their cue to do whatever the hell they wanted. The result is a delightful, unpretentious, often completely crazy film.

The populism of Me and My Gal rings true; although the film’s portrait of Irish-American life in Depression-era New York is doubtless idealized, the real optimism, tenderness, warmth, and depth of shared experience behind the idealization are unmistakable. In this film made before the repeal of Prohibition, not only is there a running comic motif involving a belligerent little drunk (the eccentric Will Stanton), there is also a wedding scene that riotously celebrates drinking, with the father of the bride (J. Farrell MacDonald) walking into close-up and shooting a jaunty invitation into the camera lens: “Who’d like a drink, huh?”

With all the comedy in Me and My Girl, it is neither surprising nor regrettable that the serious side of the plot gets shortchanged. Walsh’s casual audacity with space, his fondness for the hard-boiled and the good-hearted, and his mastery of every nuance of his material are evident throughout the film, which, miraculously, at no moment lapses into the merely conventional. CFu

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1930s




ZÉRO DE CONDUITE (1933)

ZERO FOR CONDUCT

France (Argui-Film) 41m BW

Language: French

Director: Jean Vigo

Producer: Jacques-Louis Nounez, Jean Vigo

Screenplay: Jean Vigo

Photography: Boris Kaufman

Music: Maurice Jaubert

Cast: Jean Dasté, Robert le Flon, Du Verron, Delphin, Léon Larive, Mme. Emile, Louis De Gonzague-Frick, Raphaël Diligent, Louis Lefebvre, Gilbert Pruchon, Coco Golstein, Gérard de Bédarieux

“Young Devils at College,” the subtitle of Zero for Conduct, suggests a mild romp in the Carry On vein, but Jean Vigo’s classic short film means business. At stake in this vignette of childhood rebellion against an oppressive school institution is nothing less than a veritable Surrealist manifesto—one whose cosmic dimension is assured by the final shot in which its young devils, triumphant on a rooftop, appear ready to take flight.

This is a terrific movie to spring on students unprepared for what they will see: full frontal nudity, scatological and body-obsessed humor, antireligious blasphemy, and insistent homoeroticism. But it transcends the simple duality of youth versus authority (unlike its loose remake, the 1968 film If....) via its vision of inescapable, polymorphous perversity: Even the stuffiest teachers here are twisted, secretly wild at heart.

The hearty provocation happens as much on the level of form as content: the experiments with slow-motion, animation, and trick photography are prodigious and wondrous. Vigo had absorbed the avant-gardism of Luis Buñuel and René Clair, but he also invented a unique aesthetic form: the “aquarium shot,” a claustrophobic space in which strange apparitions are produced from every available corner and pocket—cinema as a magic act. AM

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1930s




42ND STREET (1933)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 89m BW

Director: Lloyd Bacon

Producer: Hal B. Wallis, Darryl F. Zanuck

Screenplay: Rian James, James Seymour, from novel by Bradford Ropes

Photography: Sol Polito

Music: Harry Warren

Cast: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Ruby Keeler, Guy Kibbee, Una Merkel, Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks, Dick Powell, Allen Jenkins, Edward J. Nugent, Robert McWade, George E. Stone

Oscar nominations: Hal B. Wallis, Darryl F. Zanuck (best picture), Nathan Levinson (sound)

Steven jay schneider

“Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” The grandmother of backstage musicals is still a tuneful charmer (verified by its adaptation into a Broadway hit fifty years later), but it also occupies a special place in film history, for several appealing reasons.

42nd Street’s plot became one of the best-loved bores of showbiz lore. Fresh-faced dancer Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), newly arrived in New York during the Depression, lands a job in the chorus of a musical called Pretty Lady. The show’s temperamental star Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels) injures her ankle the night before the show opens, so “real little trouper” Peggy steps into the lead, is drilled to exhaustion, and, with the fate of the company riding on her, bravely goes out there and wows ’em. Seventy years on, the script is a cherishable and disarming mix of naïveté, smart toughness, and sassy repartee.

Fleshing out the drama is a cast of characters who became archetypes: the stressed and ailing director (Warner Baxter, whose bullying and pep talks to his company are classic); the harassed dance director (George E. Stone); the saucy, wisecracking chorus girls (Una Merkel and Ginger Rogers); the puppyish juvenile (Dick Powell); and the well-heeled, lecherous backer (Guy Kibbee) with designs on the leading lady, who strings him along while conducting a clandestine romance with a down-on-his-luck vaudevillian (George Brent). The winning cast is a remarkable ensemble. The wonderful Baxter had won the Best Actor Oscar for In Old Arizona’s dashing bandito hero The Cisco Kid. Daniels was a top star of silent pictures who could also sing. Brent was another established romantic lead. Billed beneath them, half a dozen actors were already popular faces, including Rogers, soon to be teamed with Fred Astaire. Dick Powell, baby-faced and peppy, was among those whose careers were launched by 42nd Street. The big discovery in her film debut was Ruby Keeler, Broadway darling and wife of Al Jolson. She wasn’t much of a singer but was adorable, sweetly vivacious, and a tap-dancing treat.

Generally Warner Brothers films were renowned for realism. But to boost their musical fortunes, Mervyn LeRoy (who developed this project before illness made him defer directing to Lloyd Bacon) brought in songwriters Al Dubin and Harry Warren, who became chief tunesmiths for Warner Brothers. LeRoy also insisted on inventive dance director Busby Berkeley, who had enlivened several musical comedies for Sam Goldwyn. He made much out of the snappy songs, including “Shuffle off to Buffalo,” “Young and Healthy,” and “You’re Beginning to be a Habit with Me.” For the show-stopping title song finale, Berkeley created an immortal production number in which Ruby dancing atop a taxi, swaying Manhattan skyscrapers, and scantily clad beauties arranged in geometric patterns shot from high overhead form a sensational rhythmic kaleidoscope. After seeing what he was up to, Warner Brothers contracted Berkeley and gave him carte blanche, initiating a long run of dazzling dance confections that brightened the decade and remain a highlight in screen musicals. AE

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1930s




FOOTLIGHT PARADE (1933)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 104m BW

Director: Lloyd Bacon

Producer: Robert Lord

Screenplay: Manuel Seff, James Seymour

Photography: George Barnes

Music: Al Dubin, Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal, Harry Warren, Walter Donaldson, Gus Kahn

Cast: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert, Claire Dodd, Gordon Westcott, Arthur Hohl, Renee Whitney, Barbara Rogers, Paul Porcasi, Philip Faversham

The greatest of all Depression-era musicals, Footlight Parade is really two films in one. The first is a fast, funny backstage story about frantic efforts to stage live musical interludes at movie houses, with James Cagney in top form as a hard-driving producer too preoccupied to appreciate his adoring secretary (Joan Blondell). The second is a climactic juggernaut of three consecutive Busby Berkeley spectacles, the rigor of whose design is matched by their uninhibited imagery.

I will pass too quickly over “Honeymoon Hotel,” which takes a wholesomely naughty tour through an establishment devoted to conjugal bliss, and “Shanghai Lil,” which transforms rakish oriental decadence into rousing New Deal morale boosting, in order to concentrate on “By a Waterfall.” This aquatic rhapsody, featuring the glistening bodies and geometric group formations displayed by a bevy of water nymphs, pushes its central tension between form and flesh further and further until it reaches an abstract outer space where depth collapses. The distinction between air and water dissolves and human bodies mutate into elemental cell-like units. You can have the “Star Gate” climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey; when it comes to consciousness-expanding cinematic trips, I’ll take a plunge into Berkeley’s “Waterfall.” MR

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1930s




GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 96m BW

Director: Mervyn LeRoy

Producer: Robert Lord, Jack L. Warner, Raymond Griffith

Screenplay: David Boehm, Erwin S. Gelsey

Photography: Sol Polito

Music: Harry Warren

Cast: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, Ginger Rogers

Oscar nomination: Nathan Levinson (sound)

Of the series of classic early 1930s Warner Brothers musicals featuring numbers by Busby Berkeley, Gold Diggers of 1933 is the one that most strongly evokes the Great Depression. The bawdy, wisecracking screenplay centers on struggling Broadway showgirls who do what’s necessary—including the use of “gold digging” techniques on rich suckers—to keep the wolf from the door. The film’s latter stages are dominated by three spectacular Berkeley numbers: the racy “Pettin’ in the Park,” elegant “Shadow Waltz,” and topical “Remember My Forgotten Man.”

An ironic disparity between onstage opulence and offstage economic crisis is established in the “We’re in the Money” curtain-raiser, when a peppy paean to prosperity being rehearsed by coin-covered chorines is broken up by the show’s creditors. The opening number’s correlation of sex and money foreshadows the climactic “Remember My Forgotten Man,” in which a streetwalker (Joan Blondell) laments the common man’s closely-linked losses of earning power and sexual virility, in poignant contrast to his forgotten World War I military glory. With its partisan references to the controversial 1932 Bonus March of jobless veterans and its vivid tableaux connecting war, emasculation, and unemployment, “Remember My Forgotten Man” is one of Hollywood’s hardest-hitting political statements of the 1930s. MR

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1930s




SHE DONE HIM WRONG (1933)

U.S. (Paramount) 66m BW

Director: Lowell Sherman

Producer: William LeBaron

Screenplay: Mae West, Harry Thew, John Bright, from the play Diamond Lil by Mae West

Photography: Charles Lang

Music: Ralph Rainger, Shelton Brooks, John Leipold, Stephan Pasternacki

Cast: Mae West, Cary Grant, Owen Moore, Gilbert Roland, Noah Beery, David Landau, Rafaela Ottiano, Dewey Robinson, Rochelle Hudson, Tammany Young, Fuzzy Knight, Grace La Rue, Robert Homans, Louise Beavers

Oscar nomination: William LeBaron (best picture)

Steven jay schneider

In the early 1930s, Hollywood—beset with financial difficulties and production problems related to the conversion to sound cinema—turned to stage performers of proven popularity to lure customers back to the theaters. Among the most notable of these was Mae West, whose play Diamond Lil (which she wrote as a kind of showcase of her several talents) was immensely successful on Broadway and elsewhere. West proved a happy choice for Paramount because her unique brand of sophisticated if bawdy humor easily translated on screen; her first film, Night After Night (1932), was a big hit with audiences. West’s antics, especially her famous double entendres and sleazy style, offended religious conservatives of the time and hastened the foundation of the Breen Office in 1934 to enforce the Production Code (promulgated, but widely ignored, in the early 1930s). West’s post-1934 films, although interesting, never recaptured the appeal of her earlier work, of which She Done Him Wrong—the screen adaptation of Diamond Lil—is the most notable example, even garnering an Academy Award nomination.

West plays a “saloon keeper” in New York’s Bowery who is involved with various criminals in the neighborhood. As Lady Lou, West is pursued by two local entrepreneurs and her fiancé is just released from jail, but she is hardly in need of a man as she inhabits lavish quarters above her establishment, replete with servants and an impressive collection of diamond jewelry. Lou, however, is smitten by her new neighbor, the head of the Salvation Army mission (Cary Grant). Her initial appraisal of the younger man’s attractiveness is part of Hollywood legend. To Grant she utters the famous line “Why don’t you come up sometime, see me.” As a demonstration of her affection (and power), she uses some of her considerable hoard of diamonds to purchase his mission and make him a present of it. In the end, Grant is revealed as a detective who promptly takes all the crooks into custody, but “imprisons” Lou quite differently—with a wedding ring. A classic Hollywood comedy, full of naughtiness and good humor. RBP

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1930s




DUCK SOUP (1933)

U.S. (Paramount) 70m BW

Director: Leo McCarey

Producer: Herman J. Mankiewicz

Screenplay: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby

Photography: Henry Sharp

Music: Bert Kalmar, John Leipold, Harry Ruby

Cast: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Zeppo Marx, Margaret Dumont, Raquel Torres, Louis Calhern, Edmund Breese, Leonid Kinskey, Charles Middleton, Edgar Kennedy

Steven jay schneider

Released in 1933, this madcap comedy is the crowning glory of the comic team of the Marx Brothers, a New York phenomenon who honed their performing skills through vaudeville and went on to take Broadway with a series of comedies including The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers. More than original performers, their timing was perfect in more ways than one: sound technology was taking over films just as they peaked on the stages of New York and looked for new audiences to conquer.

Among the five films made in Paramount’s New York studios by the brothers—Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Zeppo—Duck Soup is the last to feature all of them (Zeppo, the youngest brother and the group’s straight man, went on to be an agent and inventor). It’s crammed with visual and verbal gags, most of which are as fresh and funny today as they were in 1933. As with so many classics, Duck Soup enjoyed less-than-vigorous box-office traffic. It did so badly, in fact, that Paramount cancelled the Marx Brothers’ contract soon afterward, causing them to head west to Hollywood and MGM, where A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races were made.

Duck Soup is only 70 minutes long, but it packs in a seemingly endless string of virtually anything that might get a laugh, from jabs at Paul Revere and snide asides about then-current musicals to unexpected use of stock footage and astonishingly inventive physical sketches like the “three-hat routine,” perfected by the brothers on stage over the years, and the famous mirror sequence. This routine—imitated by comics ever since—features Groucho, dressed in nightgown, nightcap, moustache, and cigar, meeting “himself’ (Harpo as an identical image) in a doorway.

The plot, as such, involves Groucho as the dictator of the state of Freedonia. Named Rufus T. Firefly, his patron is the wealthy Mrs. Teasdale, played with ineffable dignity and grace under pressure by Margaret Dumont, again the perfect outrageous foil and the subject of most of Groucho’s forcefully memorable putdowns. If the physical gags and Groucho’s inimitable dialogue style were their own, the scripts had expert input from many great comedy writers, among them S.J. Perelman. More than a great physical comedy act, the Marx Brothers were comedians lucky enough to have witty dialogue and keen observation, another reason why Duck Soup has survived whereas the films of, say, the Ritz Brothers remain unrevered.

Sylvanian Ambassador Trintino (Louis Calhern) wants Freedonia for his own and so pays Harpo and Chico to be his intelligence agents. This slender plot line is strong enough to support some of the best comedy sequences ever filmed, and offensive enough to some to count as surrealist satire. Benito Mussolini banned the film in Italy because he took Groucho’s role as a personal attack; nothing could have pleased the brothers more. Again, before the film’s release, a small city in New York called Fredonia complained about the use of its name as well as the additional “e”; the response from the Marx Brothers camp was reassuringly predictable: “Change the name of your town, it’s hurting our picture.” KK

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1930s




QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933)

U.S. (MGM) 97m BW

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

Producer: Walter Wanger

Screenplay: S.N. Behrman, H.M. Harwood

Photography: William H. Daniels

Music: Herbert Stothart

Cast: Greta Garbo, John Gilbert, Ian Keith, Lewis Stone, Elizabeth Young, C. Aubrey Smith, Reginald Owen, Georges Renavent, David Torrence, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Ferdinand Munier

Venice Film Festival: Rouben Mamoulian (Mussolini Cup nomination)

Rouben Mamoulian’s re-creation of the seventeenth-century Swedish court provides Greta Garbo with a perfect vehicle to dominate the screen. The historical Christina, daughter of Gustavus Adolphus, was a reclusive aesthete who eventually abdicated in order to have a life of her own and change her Lutheranism for Catholicism. Garbo’s version, by way of contrast, is an alluring mixture of masculine and feminine qualities. Learned, resolute, she is also sexually experienced, even aggressive, yet committed to her independence.

The plot (which seems to have borrowed a good deal from screen versions of England’s Elizabeth I) centers on her counselors’ demand that she marry Charles of France, which angers her and her “consort,” the burly Count Magnus (Ian Keith). Fleeing the court—and the restrictions placed on her as a woman—Christina dresses like a man and encounters, by chance, the Spanish ambassador, Antonio (John Gilbert, whom Garbo was romancing at the time). What follows are comic scenes of sexual disguise, as Christina begins to fall deeply in love with Antonio, and deep eroticism. When Antonio is killed protecting her honor, Christina abdicates, achieving the solitude that, because of her rank and personal qualities, seems her fate from the beginning. Garbo’s performance in the role is inspired, helped by the glamorizing touch of Mamoulian’s camera. Well-conceived art design, editing, and music make Queen Christina sensational viewing. RBP

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1930s




LAS HURDES (1933)

LAND WITHOUT BREAD

Spain (Ramón Acín) 27m BW

Language: Spanish

Director: Luis Buñuel

Producer: Ramón Acín, Luis Buñuel

Screenplay: Luis Buñuel, Rafael Sánchez Ventura

Photography: Eli Lotar

Music: Brahms

Cast: Abel Jacquin (voice)

An extraordinarily powerful yet wholly unsentimental account of poverty, disease, malnutrition, and ignorance allowed to exist in a supposedly civilized Christian nation, Luis Buñuel’s documentary Land Without Bread was shot in the remote mountainous region of Las Hurdes—a small area just north of Extremadura, less than 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of the glories of the university city of Salamanca—in 1932. Physical, psychic, and social ills are all calmly observed by a dispassionate camera, Buñuel realizing that the images would speak volumes for themselves. Nonetheless, he juxtaposed shots of the riches to be found in Catholic churches and, it was learned later, was not above shooting a goat or smearing an ailing ass with honey (to attract a lethal swarm of bees) to emphasize his argument.

But what does all this have to do with a Surrealist? The horrors are not only on view but they’re also the stuff of nightmare; Buñuel also seems all too aware that the only true release from the Hurdanos’s cruel sufferings (unless State and Church intervene, at least) is death itself, and certainly many of the actions taken to alleviate their hunger and pain seem informed by a perverse desire for extinction. Cruel, cool, strangely beautiful, and as pungent as sulfur. GA

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1930s




KING KONG (1933)

U.S. (RKO) 100m BW

Director: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack

Producer: Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack, David O. Selznick

Screenplay: James Ashmore Creelman, Ruth Rose, Edgar Wallace

Photography: Edward Linden, J.O. Taylor, Vernon L. Walker, Kenneth Peach

Music: Max Steiner

Cast: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot, Frank Reicher, Sam Hardy, Noble Johnson, Steve Clemente, James Flavin

Steven jay schneider

The undisputed champ of all monster movies—and an early Hollywood high-water mark for special-effects work—King Kong remains one of the most lasting and beloved motion-picture masterpieces. Essentially a simian take on the Beauty and the Beast fable, told without the transformative happy ending and on a gargantuan scale, Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s film fuses groundbreaking model work and emotional resonance to a degree rarely replicated by the literally hundreds of imitators that inevitably followed in its wake.

The story essentially plays out like that age-old conflict between city and nature. An expedition team arrives on the ominously named Skull Island, attracted by the promise that a giant prehistoric gorilla, feared and worshipped by the natives, might be brought home to New York and exploited as a must-see attraction. But mighty Kong doesn’t take well to being caged and escapes on a destructive spree through the Big Apple.

The scenes set on Skull Island remain impressive even to this day, from Kong’s magnificent first appearance to the number of other prehistoric creatures he and the expedition face in protecting or seeking, respectively, the abducted Ann Darrow (Faye Wray). Indeed, Kong is intimidated by Ann’s beauty, and when he inevitably flees captivity and roams through New York City, the first thing he does is capture the young woman and retain her as his prisoner of love. Straddling the Empire State Building and swatting away pesky airplanes, King would ultimately rather sacrifice his own life than hurt Ann, which gives the film its famous, touching sign-off: “’Twas beauty killed the beast.”

That the giant ape shifts from feared antagonist to sympathetic protagonist, with the former of course the perspective of his pursuers, shows the success of Willis O’Brian’s intricate and expressive stop-animation work (future stop-animation savant Ray Harryhausen worked as his assistant). Although it is a B-movie at heart, King Kong set Hollywood’s special-effects fetish on fast forward, and a case could be made that thanks to Kong many of today’s films focus far more on flash than story. But unlike contemporary special-effects exercises, the majesty of Kong is destined to endure, thanks in no small part to the “performance” of its giant lead. JKl

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1930s




THE BITTER TEA OF GENERAL YEN (1933)

U.S. (Columbia) 88m BW

Language: English / Mandarin / French

Director: Frank Capra

Producer: Walter Wanger

Screenplay: Edward E. Paramore Jr., Grace Zaring Stone

Photography: Joseph Walker

Music: W. Franke Harling

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Nils Asther, Toshia Mori, Walter Connolly, Gavin Gordon, Lucien Littlefield, Richard Loo, Helen Jerome Eddy, Emmett Corrigan

Frank Capra’s atypical melodrama concerns an American missionary (Barbara Stanwyck) in Shanghai—a prim New England type named Megan Davis, engaged to another missionary, her childhood sweetheart. During an outbreak of civil war, she’s taken prisoner by a Chinese warlord named Yen (Nils Asther). The unlikely love story that ensues is not only Capra’s unsung masterpiece but also one of the great Hollywood love stories of the 1930s: subtle, delicate, moody, mystical, and passionate. Joseph Walker shot it through filters and with textured shadows that suggest the work of Josef von Sternberg; Edward Paramore wrote the script, adapted from a story by Grace Zaring Stone. Oddly enough, this perverse and beautiful film was chosen to open Radio City Music Hall in 1933. It was not one of Capra’s commercial successes, but it arguably beats the rest of his films by miles, and both Stanwyck and Asther are extraordinary.

Among the film’s highlights is a remarkable dream sequence in which Megan’s bedroom is broken into by a Yellow Peril monster whom one assumes is Yen, and then Megan is saved by a masked man in western clothes, whom one assumes is her fiancé. But when she removes the mask, it turns out to be Yen, who is standing beside her when she wakes. No less memorable is the exquisite final sequence—which might be interpreted as a Hollywood brand of pop Buddhism, though it’s rendered with sweetness and delicacy. JRos

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1930s




SONS OF THE DESERT (1933)

U.S. (Hal Roach, MGM) 68m BW

Director: William A. Seiter

Producer: Hal Roach

Screenplay: Frank Craven

Photography: Kenneth Peach

Music: William Axt, George M. Cohan, Marvin Hatley, Paul Marquardt, O’Donnell-Heath, Leroy Shield

Cast: Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Charley Chase, Mae Busch, Dorothy Christy, Lucien Littlefield, John Elliott, William Gillespie, John Merton

Essentially a remake of the duo’s 1930 film Be Big, this full-length Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy comedy was their fourth feature, and arguably their best. Although other Laurel and Hardy films are, subjectively at least, equal to this one, they tend to inhabit atypical worlds—the fairyland of Babes in the Wood, for example, or the western fantasy of Way Out West. Although Sons of the Desert may be one of Laurel and Hardy’s most conventional comedies, it best represents the strange domestic hell that the duo inhabit in their finest work, an oddly childlike world full of domineering wives, clandestine fun sessions, and illicit smoking and drinking.

Centering around a trip to Hawaii with the Freemason-like fraternity of the title and Stan and Ollie’s attempts to conceal this jaunt from their wives, Sons of the Desert takes a basic farce plot and turns it into a vehicle for motion picture comedy’s greatest double act. Superb supporting performances, most notably from Mae Busch as Mrs. Hardy and comedian-director Charlie Chase as a drunken version of himself, along with capable direction from William A. Seiter (whose other notable comedy was the Marx Brothers’ workmanlike Room Service in 1938), also make Sons of the Desert—unusually for a seventy-year-old film comedy—utterly watchable today. KK

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1930s




IT’S A GIFT (1934)

U.S. (Paramount) 73m BW

Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Producer: William LeBaron

Screenplay: Jack Cunningham, W.C. Fields

Photography: Henry Sharp

Music: Lew Brown, Buddy G. DeSylva, Ray Henderson, Al Jolson, John Leipold

Cast: W.C. Fields, Kathleen Howard, Jean Rouverol, Julian Madison, Tommy Bupp, Baby LeRoy, Tammany Young, Morgan Wallace, Charles Sellon, Josephine Whittell, T. Roy Barnes, Diana Lewis, Spencer Charters, Guy Usher, Dell Henderson

Steven jay schneider

Undoubtedly the finest of all W.C. Fields’s comedies, It’s a Gift may not offer the inspired insanity of such waywardly surreal gems as Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) or the unforgettable short The Fatal Glass of Beer (1933), but it is certainly the most coherent and most consistently funny of his features.

Despite having been cobbled together from old revue sketches and scenes from earlier movies like It’s the Old Army Game (1926), Norman Z. McLeod’s It’s a Gift actually provides something resembling a proper story. Harold Bissonette (Fields) is so tired of the constant pressures of family life and running a general store that he secretly buys, with his hard-earned savings, the Californian orange grove of his dreams, and sets off with his family (all vocally horrified by what he’s done, naturally), only to discover that their purchase is nothing like the palace pictured in the advertisement. That said, of course, this “plot” is simply an excuse for another of Fields’ marvelously misanthropic essays on the perils and pitfalls of parenthood, marriage, neighbors, and Prohibition, allowing him free rein to court our sympathy for an old curmudgeon who feels himself maltreated by virtually the entire world.

It is particularly difficult to select highlights from such a supremely even series of set pieces, but the catastrophically destructive visit to Fields’s shop paid by the feeble, deaf, blind, and uncommonly belligerent Mr. Muckle (Charles Sellon) must rank as some kind of peak in politically incorrect hilarity. The protagonist’s forlorn attempt to sleep on the porch—despite noisy neighbors, a nagging wife (the inimitable Kathleen Howard), a murderous screwdriver wielded by Baby LeRoy, a rolling coconut, a broken hammock, a rifle, and a quite crazily cheery insurance salesman in search of one Karl LaFong (“Capital K, small A, small R”)—is quite simply as brilliant and nightmarish a portrait of ordinary life as deadpan Hollywood comedy ever got. Mind you, the shaving sequence is pretty great, too. Oh, and then there’s the dinner with the family. Sheer genius. GA

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1930s




TRIUMPH DES WILLENS (1934)

TRIUMPH OF THE WILL

Germany (Leni Riefenstahl, NSDAP-Reichsleitung) 114m BW

Language: German

Director: Leni Riefenstahl

Producer: Leni Riefenstahl

Screenplay: Leni Riefenstahl, Walter Ruttmann

Photography: Sepp Allgeier, Karl Attenberger, Werner Bohne, Walter Frentz, Willy Zielke

Music: Herbert Windt

Cast: Adolf Hitler, Max Amann, Martin Bormann, Walter Buch, Walter Darré, Otto Dietrich, Sepp Dietrich, Hans Frank, Josef Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Jakob Grimminger, Rudolf Hess, Reinhard Heydrich, Konstantin Hierl, Heinrich Himmler, Robert Ley, Viktor Lutze, Erich Raeder, Fritz Reinhardt, Alfred Rosenberg, Hjalmar Schacht, Franz Xaver Schwarz, Julius Streicher, Fritz Todt, Werner von Blomberg, Hans Georg von Friedeburg, Gerd von Rundstedt, Baldur von Schirach, Adolf Wagner

Steven jay schneider

It was Adolf Hitler himself who commissioned dancer and actress turned filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl to make a grand, celebratory record of the sixth Nazi Party Congress held in September 1934 at Nuremberg—the medieval Bavarian showplace where, with deliberate irony, a court of Allied victors would convene in 1945–46 to judge war criminals of the Third Reich. Hitler also gave her the film’s title. Riefenstahl was a careerist as well as a creative talent and, her postwar protestations to the contrary, there is evidence (not only here but in her photo-journalistic coverage of the invasion of Poland and in her later use of concentration camp inmates as “extras”) that her enthusiasm for fascism was crafty if, debatably, naive. But any discussion of motivation cannot diminish the devastating impact of Triumph of the Will. This is an awesome spectacle, vulgar but mythic, and technically an overwhelming, assured accomplishment.

Riefenstahl had all the resources a documentarian could desire. Nuremberg was as carefully prepared as if it were a massive soundstage housing a series of elaborate sets. She ordered new bridges and accesses constructed in the city center, and lighting towers and camera tracks built, all of which was carried out to her exact specifications. Deploying 30 cameras and 120 technicians, Riefenstahl brilliantly fulfilled her Nuremberg brief—to glorify the might of the Nazi state and tighten its grip on the hearts and minds of Germany—with breathtaking imagery on a spectacularly sinister, epic scale, creating an infamous masterpiece still regarded as the most powerful propaganda film ever made.

The documentary—which after six months’ editing into a carefully selected two hours represents about three percent of the footage shot—opens with Hitler’s arrival by plane, his descent from the clouds given the character of a Wagnerian hero’s entrance, with his head in a halo of sunlight. The Führer’s acclamation and adulation by saluting multitudes is central to this presentation of his political philosophy as world theater, lending him a disturbing charisma despite the posturing and the stridency so familiar from news archives, historical drama, and masterly parody, like Charlie Chaplin’s in The Great Dictator (1940). Setting him off are a kaleidoscope of astonishing images: vigorous young men disporting, torchlit processions, swastikabrandishing ritual, militaristic display, thousands of well-drilled children pledging themselves to the Movement, and a continuous folkloric parade concluding with the Nazi anthem, the Horst Wessel Song.

Triumph of the Will is an unsubtle but innovative demonstration of technique, from ingenious camera angles and striking composition to the relentless pace of its canny editing. This is an enduringly fascinating, chilling testament to the power of film to impose a false spiritual aesthetic on the overtly political. After World War II, Riefenstahl was imprisoned for four years by the Americans and the French for her role in the Nazi propaganda machine over her insistence that she made “pure historical film, film vérité.” Repeated attempts to revive her career were unsuccessful. Later she discovered underwater photography and demonstrated she still had an artist’s eye. AE

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1930s




L’ATALANTE (1934)

France (Gaumont-Franco Film-Aubert) 89m BW

Language: French

Director: Jean Vigo

Producer: Jacques-Louis Nounez

Screenplay: Jean Guinée, Albert Riéra

Photography: Jean-Paul Alphen, Louis Berger, Boris Kaufman

Music: Maurice Jaubert

Cast: Michel Simon, Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Gilles Margaritis, Louis Lefebvre, Maurice Gilles, Raphaël Diligent

Steven jay schneider

Heretical as it may be to say in these enlightened times of gender politics, but Jean Vigo’s masterpiece L’Atalante is the cinema’s greatest ode to heterosexual passion. One simply cannot enter into its rapturous poetry without surrendering to the romantic series of oppositions between the sexes, comparisons rigorously installed at every possible level—spiritual, physical, erotic, and emotional. It is only this thrill of absolute “otherness” that can allow both the agony of nonalignment between lovers and the sublimity of their eventual fusion.

This is far removed from the typical romance of the time. As Vigo once memorably complained, it takes “two pairs of lips and three thousand meters of film to come together, and almost as many to come unstuck again.” Like Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), L’Atalante casts the immortal love story within an adventure tale: man (Jean Dasté as Jean) the seafaring adventurer, woman (Dita Parlo as Juliette) the city-craving settler. The seductive temptations and drifts that temporarily split them up are forecast in a charged moment of almost metaphysical agony: In thick fog, Jean stumbles blindly over the boat’s barge until he finds his bride and envelops her in an embrace at once angry and relieved, inspiring them instantly to head below deck to make love.

Between these poles of man and woman, however, there is Père Jules (Michel Simon), master of the boat. It is surely the mark of Vigo’s greatness as an artist that his imagination could project itself fully into both the heterosexual ideal and the fluid identity of this inspired madman. Jules is a multiple being, man and woman, child and adult, friend and lover, without boundaries—at one point even visually doubled as he wrestles himself. He is a living text covered with extravagant tattoos; he is the cinematic apparatus itself, able to produce sound from records with his magically electrified finger. Jules is Vigo’s Surrealist sensibility incarnated by Simon, an astonishingly anarchic, instinctual performer.

Vigo develops and deepens the formal explorations of his previous film Zero for Conduct (1933). From silent, burlesque cinema and René Clair he borrows a parade gag for his prologue: stuffed shirts at the couple’s funeral filing past the camera, gradually becoming faster until they are an unruly, disheveled mob. Aboard the boat, Vigo finds his beloved “aquarium spaces”: enclosed rooms filled with cats, oddities, and wonders (as in Jules’s cabin devoted to exotic bric-a-brac). On deck, he uses ghostly, nocturnal lighting. Unifying the film is a superb rhythmic and expressive tone.

Vigo’s death at the age of twenty-nine was a tragic loss. But L’Atalante crowns his legacy—and is there any scene in cinema sexier than the magnificent, Eisensteinian montage of Jean’s and Juliette’s bodies, far apart, matched in postures of mutual arousal, an act of love made possible only through the soulful language of film? AM

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1930s




THE BLACK CAT (1934)

U.S. (Universal) 65m BW

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Producer: Carl Laemmle Jr.

Screenplay: Edgar G. Ulmer, from the story House of Doom by Edgar Allan Poe

Photography: John J. Mescall

Music: James Huntley, Heinz Roemheld

Music: Tchaikovsky, Liszt

Cast: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Julie Bishop, Lucille Lund, Egon Brecher, Harry Cording, Henry Armetta, Albert Conti

The first screen teaming of the great monster stars of the 1930s, Boris Karloff (top-billed simply as “KARLOFF”) and Bela Lugosi, The Black Cat is at once the most perverse and the artiest of the original run of Universal horror pictures, informed by the strange sensibilities of director Edgar G. Ulmer—beginning to seesaw between high art and poverty row—and poetic pulp screenwriter Peter Ruric.

Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s story only in concept, The Black Cat feels like the last German Expressionist horror film, with a tale of diabolism, revenge, necrophilia, betrayal, and bad manners set in a modernist castle (a rare instance of up-to-date Gothic) built by widow’s-peaked Satanist-cum-architect Hjalmar Poelzig (Karloff) atop the mass grave of the soldiers he betrayed to the enemy during World War I. Horror-style honeymooners David Manners and Jacqueline Wells are almost comically out of their depth, the templates for Brad and Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), as unwilling houseguests caught between Poelzig, who has his mistresses preserved like waxworks in cases in the cellar, and the vengeance-obsessed Vitus Werdegast (Lugosi), who winds up the odd chessgame plot by skinning the villain alive before the castle is blown up. Deliberately outrageous but also a tease, Karloff’s elegantly delivered rituals are all commonplace clichés (“cum granulo salis”) delivered in a lisping Latin. KN

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1930s




JUDGE PRIEST (1934)

U.S. (Fox) 80m BW

Director: John Ford

Producer: Sol M. Wurtzel

Screenplay: Irvin S. Cobb, Dudley Nichols

Photography: George Schneiderman

Music: Cyril J. Mockridge, Emil Gerstenberger, Samuel Kaylin

Cast: Will Rogers, Tom Brown, Anita Louise, Henry B. Walthall, David Landau, Rochelle Hudson, Roger Imhof, Frank Melton, Charley Grapewin, Berton Churchill, Brenda Fowler, Francis Ford, Hattie McDaniel, Stepin Fetchit

John Ford won his first Oscar for the prestigious and ponderous The Informer (1935), but this lesser-known work, released the previous year, has dated much better, despite its rambling structure, thick sentimentality, and flagrant lack of political correctness. Billy Priest (Will Rogers), magistrate of an 1890 Kentucky town, helps his nephew marry the right girl and foils an unjust legal action against a secretive blacksmith. The plot is secondary to a series of skits (many involving the discredited but brilliant black comedian Stepin Fetchit), songs, running gags, muttered asides, and incidental characters that evoke an idealized Old South community where pomposity is deflated, intolerance is kept in check, and blacks and whites coexist in sun-dappled harmony.

There are several inside references and general parallels that link Judge Priest’s director with its eponymous hero, who brings the audience to order in the precredits shot, allows digression rather than procedure to rule his courtroom, and shamelessly manipulates the spectators’ emotions by arranging for a band to play “Dixie” at a crucial point in the trial. Judge Priest is one of the loveliest visions of innocence ever put on the American screen, and Judge Ford judiciously reminds us just how much artifice is necessary to make legend prevail over fact. MR

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1930s




IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934)

U.S. (Columbia) 105m BW

Director: Frank Capra

Producer: Frank Capra, Harry Cohn

Screenplay: Samuel Hopkins Adams, Robert Riskin

Photography: Joseph Walker

Music: Howard Jackson, Louis Silvers

Cast: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly, Roscoe Karns, Jameson Thomas, Alan Hale, Arthur Hoyt, Blanche Frederici, Charles C. Wilson

Oscars: Frank Capra, Harry Cohn (best picture), Frank Capra (director), Robert Riskin (screenplay), Clark Gable (actor), Claudette Colbert (actress)

Venice Film Festival: Frank Capra nomination (Mussolini Cup)

Steven jay schneider

Peter (Clark Gable) is a tough-talking journalist; Ellie (Claudette Colbert) is a “dizzy dame” on the run from home and her father. The two meet while on the road and are forced, reluctantly, to collaborate. He’s the salt of the earth, she’s a rich kid, and each exploits the other—for him, she means a big newspaper story, for her, he’s a way to help her get to New York and a forbidden fiancé. In the course of the story, they move from antagonism to love. It could be one of a hundred routine, American romantic comedies of the 1930s or 1940s.

But, make no mistake, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night—the first of only three movies to win all five major Academy Awards, preceding One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Silence of the Lambs (1991)—is movie magic. This has something to do with how it conjures an entire milieu: a “people’s America” filled with unlikely rogues and soft-hearted citizens, always ready to share a story and a song, or simply exhibit their lovable eccentricities. But the film is also careful to explore exceptions to its basic rule: Ellie’s father, Andrews (Walter Connolly), turns out to be a pretty swell chap, just as the talkative bus passenger Shapeley (Roscoe Karns) ends up a weasel.

Capra was expert at cleverly weaving a story from altogether familiar and ordinary motifs: eating, verbal slang (“ah, nuts”), snoring, washing, dressing and undressing. True to the romantic comedy formula, identities are momentarily dissolved whenever a masquerade is necessary or able to be exploited for secret entertainment—although, whenever Peter and Ellie pretend to be husband and wife, more serious possibilities and destinies do suggest themselves.

It Happened One Night is a distant predecessor of today’s “trash comedies,” such as those by the Farrelly Brothers. Ass jokes abound and the pretensions and privileges of the wealthy are mercilessly mocked, while Colbert’s famous, bare legs stop traffic. And then there is the sexual tension angle: Working patiently through four nights of Peter and Ellie together, the entire film hinges on the symbolism of the “walls of Jericho” finally toppling—the ridding of the blanket that stands, weakly and tremblingly, as the barrier to the consummation of their growing love.

Critics can't rhapsodize over Capra’s powers of montage or mise-en-scène; style was a functional, conventional matter for him. But he did have a perfect sense of script (in both overall structure and small details), and a brilliant rapport with his charismatic actors. Gable and Colbert help to truly equalize this one-upmanship battle of the sexes, diluting that ideological thrust of the script that suggests that proletarian guys should teach spoiled gals a thing or two about real life. In the infectious interplay of these stars—in their mutual willingness to play, to laugh, to be vulnerable, to take a joke as good they give it—we encounter an ideal that has been well and truly lost in contemporary, mainstream cinema: fighting reciprocity between the sexes. AM

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1930s




THE THIN MAN (1934)

U.S. (Cosmopolitan, MGM) 93m BW

Director: W.S. Van Dyke

Producer: Hunt Stromberg

Photography: James Wong Howe

Screenplay: Albert Hackett, from novel by Dashiell Hammett

Music: William Axt

Cast: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Maureen O’Sullivan, Nat Pendleton, Minna Gombell, Porter Hall, Henry Wadsworth, William Henry, Harold Huber, Cesar Romero, Natalie Moorhead, Edward Brophy, Edward Ellis, Cyril Thornton

Oscar nominations: Hunt Stromberg (best picture), W.S. Van Dyke (director), Frances Goodrich, (screenplay), Albert Hackett (screenplay), William Powell (actor)

Steven jay schneider

The chemistry between Myrna Loy and William Powell was so potent in the 1934 film Manhattan Melodrama that its director, W.S. Van Dyke, cast the two again in the same year. As Nick and Nora Charles, they are unique in the history of cinema. The first popular husband-and-wife detective team, they not only love each other, they like each other, too, without being insipid, disrespectful, or dull.

The Thin Man’s plot is a messy one. Nick Charles is officially a retired detective but he takes a personal interest in the disappearance of a crotchety inventor—the “thin man” of the title—whose daughter (Maureen O’Sullivan) is Nick’s long-time acquaintance. The inventor’s safety is thrown into further doubt when complications arise involving his suspicious mistress, grasping ex-wife, and her money-hungry husband (Cesar Romero). With the addition of multifarious mobsters, cops, and molls, it seems the whole criminal world turns up at the Charles’s luxurious hotel suite at one time or another.

Trying to make sense of the story gets in the way of what is genuinely important—the snappy banter full of covetable lines between the rich, sophisticated Nora and her sharp lush of a husband. Disarming an unwanted guest one night, the incident is reported in the morning news. “I was shot twice in the Tribune,” says Nick. “I read you were shot five times in the tabloids,” says Nora. “It’s not true. He didn’t come anywhere near my tabloids.” Said with cast-off ease, the lines are funny without jumping out as such. Nick may seem like an alcoholic, but he springs back and forth from relaxed giddiness to active sobriety in the wink of an eye. The couple’s prodigious boozing seems to have little effect on their actions; it’s more of an elegant prop—a vital element for a country just coming out of the Great Depression.

Taken from a novel written in the same year by Dashiell Hammett, Nick and Nora were supposedly modeled on Hammett’s relationship with playwright Lillian Hellman. Shot in fourteen days, this sparkling screwball detective story earned over $2 million and was nominated for four Academy Awards. Not surprisingly, popularity spawned four more movies as well as a radio and television series, and was the inspiration behind TV shows such as McMillian & Wife and Hart to Hart. KK

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1930s




CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935)

U.S. (Cosmopolitan, First National, Warner Bros.) 119m BW

Language: English / French

Director: Michael Curtiz

Producer: Harry Joe Brown, Gordon Hollingshead, Hal B. Wallis

Screenplay: Casey Robinson, from novel by Rafael Sabatini

Photography: Ernest Haller, Hal Mohr

Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Liszt

Cast: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Lionel Atwill, Basil Rathbone, Ross Alexander, Guy Kibbee, Henry Stephenson, Robert Barrat, Hobart Cavanaugh, Donald Meek, Jessie Ralph, Forrester Harvey, Frank McGlynn Sr., Holmes Herbert, David Torrence

Oscar nominations: Erich Wolfgang Korngold (best picture—not awarded), Michael Curtiz (director), Casey Robinson (screenplay), Leo F. Forbstein (music), Nathan Levinson (sound)

A quintessential swashbuckling adventure directed by expert Michael Curtiz, Captain Blood made divinely attractive Australian Errol Flynn a star overnight. His animal magnetism hugely impressed Jack Warner, who handed him this break when Robert Donat disdained the role. The film marks the first pairing in a string of winning romantic costume pictures of Flynn with Olivia de Havilland, whose genteel prettiness was a charming foil for his exuberance and athletic sex appeal.

Flynn plays an honorable seventeenth-century Irish doctor, Peter Blood, unjustly sentenced to deportation to and slavery in the Caribbean, where he aims insolent barbs and suggestive glances at dainty mistress Arabella Bishop (de Havilland). Leading an escape he turns pirate, the vengeful scourge of the bounding main, and forms an uneasy alliance with dastardly French buccaneer Captain Levasseur (Basil Rathbone). Relations become strained when they fall out over booty and the captive beauty, Arabella, resulting in a duel to the death in the first of their famously thrilling screen sword fights. Captain Blood has everything you could want in a swashbuckler—sea battles and flashing blades, a dashing hero, an imperiled but plucky heroine, cutthroats, plumed hats, wrongs righted, fellows swinging like gymnasts from masts, and a rousing score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. It is great fun. AE

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1930s




MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY (1935)

U.S. (MGM) 132m BW

Director: Frank Lloyd

Producer: Albert Lewin, Irving Thalberg

Screenplay: Talbot Jennings, Jules Furthman, from book by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall

Photography: Arthur Edeson

Music: Herbert Stothart, Walter Jurmann, Gus Kahn, Bronislau

Cast: Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Herbert Mundin, Eddie Quillan, Dudley Digges, Donald Crisp, Henry Stephenson, Francis Lister, Spring Byington, Movita, Mamo Clark, Byron Russell, Percy Waram, David Torrence

Oscar: Albert Lewin, Irving Thalberg (best picture)

Oscar nominations: Frank Lloyd (director), Jules Furthman, Talbot Jennings, Carey Wilson (screenplay), Clark Gable, Franchot Tone, Charles Laughton (actor), Margaret Booth (editing), Nat W. Finston (music)

Epitomizing the classic Hollywood spirit, Frank Lloyd’s Mutiny on the Bounty is a masterwork of studio moviemaking. The film’s spare-no-expense canvas, travelogue quality, and moral center result in an adventure tale of remarkable beauty. Of course this overlooks an acting style long since left behind. Then there’s an American cast imbuing this British cautionary tale with Depression-era optimism. Still, these minor criticisms serve to support how well produced the film is when considering MGM’s house style that simultaneously emphasized profits, escapism, and the broadest possible entertainment.

Set in the late 18th century, when the British Empire crested across the decks of its navy, the crew of the ship Bounty mutinies after months of mistreatment. Led by Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), they put their cruel captain, Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton), to sea, only for him to find his way back to port in an effort nothing short of amazing. Into his wake sails the Bounty for the South Pacific, beset by various complications.

Gable appears without his moustache, and Laughton’s bee-stung lips flutter with harsh discipline. In between are a number of nominal subplots, though in the end the film is perhaps most memorable as an early high-water mark for the art of production design. GC-Q

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1930s




A NIGHT AT THE OPERA (1935)

U.S. (MGM) 96m BW

Language: English / Italian

Director: Sam Wood

Producer: Irving Thalberg

Screenplay: James Kevin McGuinness, George S. Kaufman

Photography: Merritt B. Gerstad

Music: Nacio Herb Brown, Walter Jurmann, Bronislau Kaper, Herbert Stothart

Cast: Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx, Kitty Carlisle, Allan Jones, Walter Woolf King, Sig Ruman, Margaret Dumont, Edward Keane, Robert Emmett O’Connor

Steven jay schneider

I was very young, not much more than ten years old, when I walked into a cinema in France to watch A Night at The Opera—or, more precisely, was sent there by some adult who knew as little as I did about the Marx Brothers. At my age, reading the subtitles was still rather difficult, especially when this jumping character with a moustache and a cigar was shouting words to the audience like a crazy machine gun. But I had very little time to worry about this problem: I was lying on the floor, laughing so hard, so irrepressibly, and, if I may say, so absolutely that I spent most of the movie on the ground between the seats. Since then I have had the pleasure of seeing A Night at the Opera again, several times, along with the rest of the Marx Brothers’ work. I am aware of both the continuity and the variations in their movies, and have been amazed by the brilliance of their performances. But I still feel—deep inside as well as on my skin—the incredible power of invention and transgression conveyed by this particular film.

More than the central scenes, like the crowd gathering in the ship cabin, A Night at the Opera remains such a strong and dazzling comedy thanks to its most elementary moments—a single word or gesture performed with an incredible sense of rhythm. There is much to say about the way the transgressive weapons of the three brothers initiate a crisis in the spectacle of an opera. The fourth brother, straight-man Zeppo, is useless in this process. Groucho’s overflow of words and distortion of his body, Harpo’s unnatural silence and childlike power of destruction, Chico’s virtuosity and “foreign ethos”—all serve to disturb an opera based on a loathing of art, greed, and corruption. These elements do exist, and they are definitely interesting, but they come after this more obvious characteristic. A Night at the Opera was, and remains, a damn funny film. J-MF

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1930s




THE 39 STEPS (1935)

G.B. (Gaumont British) 86m BW

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Producer: Michael Balcon, Ivor Montagu

Screenplay: Charles Bennett, from novel by John Buchan

Photography: Bernard Knowles

Music: Jack Beaver, Hubert Bath

Cast: Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll, Lucie Mannheim, Godfrey Tearle, Peggy Ashcroft, John Laurie, Helen Haye, Frank Cellier, Wylie Watson, Gus McNaughton, Jerry Verno, Peggy Simpson

Steven jay schneider

After several tentative early steps and a few small breakthroughs, The 39 Steps was the first clear creative peak in Alfred Hitchcock’s British period and arguably marked the first fully successful film in the director’s rapidly deepening oeuvre—starting at the end of the silent era, by the time of The 39 Steps he had already directed eighteen films. After the picture’s financial and critical success, Hitchcock further solidified his reputation as a master filmmaker by embarking on a nearly unparalleled streak of compelling and entertaining thrillers that would stretch for several decades. And, indeed, many of his most popular films—North by Northwest (1959), for one—clearly have their roots in this early highlight.

Among its many noteworthy achievements, The 39 Steps introduced one key Hitchcock first: the notion of the wrong man, the innocent bystander accused, pursued, or punished for a crime he didn’t commit. (The wrong-man theme was one the director would return to again and again, most overtly in his 1956 film The Wrong Man.) Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian on holiday in England, meets a woman who is later murdered under mysterious circumstances. It seems he has stumbled into a spy plot involving something called “the 39 Steps,” and he feels that with this knowledge only he can save the day. Handcuffed to an unwilling female accomplice (Madeleine Carroll), Hannay must simultaneously evade capture by the police and an archvillain with a missing finger in hot pursuit and reveal the titular mystery before it’s too late.

In traditional Hitchcock fashion, the revelation of what “the 39 Steps” actually are—and indeed the entire spy plot—is almost peripheral to the flirtatious interplay between the two leads. Literally chained to one another in a teasing mockery of marriage, Donat and Carroll pack their quarrelsome exchanges with little innuendoes—when the chase leaves time for a breather, of course—morphing the espionage thriller into the unlikeliest of love stories. The film, like their relationship, plays out in a rush, a nonstop string of action sequences and chase scenes punctuated by witty dialogue and riveting suspense. JKl

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1930s




BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935)

U.S. (Universal) 75m BW

Director: James Whale

Producer: Carl Laemmle Jr., James Whale

Screenplay: William Hurlbut, John L. Balderston

Photography: John J. Mescall

Music: Franz Waxman

Cast: Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Valerie Hobson, Elsa Lanchester, Ernest Thesiger, Gavin Gordon, Douglas Walton, Una O’Connor, E.E. Clive, Lucien Prival, O.P. Heggie, Dwight Frye, Reginald Barlow, Mary Gordon, Anne Darling

Oscar nomination: Gilbert Kurland (sound)

Steven jay schneider

Universal Studios had to wait nearly four years before James Whale finally accepted the offer to direct the follow-up to his 1931 box-office success, Frankenstein. But it turned out to be well worth the wait: under the director’s nearly complete control (the producer, Carl Laemmle Jr., was vacationing in Europe during most of the production), Bride of Frankenstein is a surprising mix of terror and comedy that turned out to be in many ways superior to the original film.

Despite Boris Karloff’s reluctance, it was decided that the Monster should now be able to pronounce a few chosen words. His humanization here makes him more complete and faithful to Mary Shelley’s novel, and his desperate search for a friendly companion could hardly be more touching. Though it was of course played down at the censors’ request, the Monster is mostly depicted in Bride of Frankenstein as a Christlike figure who is led to kill because of his circumstances and the fear he inspires in society. Even the monstrous mate intended just for him is repulsed at first glance by his physical aspect. Without a doubt, Elsa Lanchester’s bride remains to this day one of the most astonishing creatures ever seen on screen: her appearance—in a sort of grotesque version of a marriage ceremony—is still a highlight of the horror genre, what with her mummified body, her swan-like hissing, and her weird black-and-white-streaked Egyptian hairdo.

Bride of Frankenstein’s plot relies heavily on sharp contrasts that make the spectator jump from terror to pathos or comedy. Whale’s particular sense of humor, which has often been described as camp, is mainly brought out by Minnie (Una O’Connor), the household maid, along with the outrageously effeminate acting of Ernest Thesiger, who plays the devilish Dr. Pretorius.

The immense interest in Bride of Frankenstein also stems from its portrayal of sexual relations, a portrayal that is considered by many to be at least potentially transgressive. The introduction of a second mad scientist (Pretorius) who forces Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein to give life again, emphasizes one of the fundamental and disturbing implications of Shelley’s myth: (pro)creation as something achieved by men alone. Four years later, Whale’s masterpiece itself gave birth to a “son,” but the father of the bride would have nothing to do with it. FL

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1930s




TOP HAT (1935)

U.S. (RKO) 101m BW

Director: Mark Sandrich

Producer: Pandro S. Berman

Screenplay: Allan Scott, Dwight Taylor

Photography: David Abel

Music: Irving Berlin, Max Steiner

Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes, Eric Blore, Helen Broderick

Oscar nominations: Pandro S. Berman (best picture), Carroll Clark, Van Nest Polglase (art direction), Irving Berlin (music), Hermes Pan (dance)

There is no clear-cut classic among the Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers musicals of the mid-1930s—all are mostly marvelous with crucial flaws—but Top Hat probably comes the closest. Its plot follows the series’ basic formula: Fred instantly falls for Ginger, but a silly misunderstanding (here, she mistakes him for his married friend) stokes her hostility until the final moments.

The director is the underrated Mark Sandrich, whose impeccably superficial touch maximizes the swanky, syncopated slickness so essential to the series. The film’s most famous number is “Top Hat,” featuring fancy canework among Fred and a chorus of top-hatted gents, but the heart of Top Hat is its two great romantic duets, “Isn’t It a Lovely Day” and “Cheek to Cheek,” the first set on a London bandstand during a thunderstorm, the second beside the sparkling canals of RKO’s goofily glossy Art Deco version of Venice. Such dances, with their progression from resistance to surrender, are Fred’s main weapon in winning over Ginger, but it would be a mistake to read this process as simple sexual conquest. As Ginger’s suppressed amusement makes clear, the two characters approach their respective roles of hot-to-trot and hard-to-get with playful irony, collaborating to prolong and intensify a deliciously elegant erotic game. MR

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1930s




UNE PARTIE DE CAMPAGNE (1936)

A DAY IN THE COUNTRY

France (Pantheon) 40m BW

Language: French

Director: Jean Renoir

Producer: Pierre Braunberger

Screenplay: Jean Renoir, from story by Guy de Maupassant

Photography: Jean Bourgoin, Claude Renoir

Music: Joseph Kosma

Cast: Sylvia Bataille, Georges St. Saens, Jane Marken, André Gabriello, Jacques B. Brunius, Paul Temps, Gabrielle Fontan, Jean Renoir, Marguerite Renoir

One of the most powerful and unsettling devices in film fiction is the “years later” epilogue, which usually takes us, with wistful sadness, from the concentrated time of a story in which everything was briefly possible, to the singular destiny that ensued. At the end of Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country, Henriette (Sylvia Bataille) is seen unhappily married to the man with whom she was betrothed at the start, the gormless clerk Anatole (Paul Temps). But in between these points, nothing is so fixed or certain.

Adapted from the story of the same name by Guy de Maupassant, the film was unfinished in the form originally envisaged by Renoir. It stands, however, as a self-sufficient gem. Its central action is devoted to the illicit pairing off of two local adventurers, Rodolphe (Jacques Borel) and Henri (Georges D’Arnoux), with Henriette and her mother, Juliette (Jeanne Marken). Renoir constructs a superb diagram of contrasts between these characters: Rodolphe and Juliette are lusty and frivolous, while Henri and Henriette are overwhelmed by grave emotion. So what started, in Henriette’s words, as “a sort of vague desire” that calls forth both the beauty and harshness of nature, ends badly, as the “years pass, with Sundays as melancholy as Mondays.” AM

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1930s




MODERN TIMES (1936)

U.S. (Charles Chaplin, United Artists) 87m BW

Director: Charles Chaplin

Producer: Charles Chaplin

Screenplay: Charles Chaplin

Photography: Ira H. Morgan, Roland Totheroh

Music: Charles Chaplin

Cast: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conklin, Hank Mann, Stanley Blystone, Al Ernest Garcia, Richard Alexander, Cecil Reynolds, Mira McKinney, Murdock MacQuarrie, Wilfred Lucas, Edward LeSaint, Fred Malatesta

Steven jay schneider

Modern Times was the last film in which Charles Chaplin portrayed the character of the Little Tramp, which he had created in 1914 and which had brought him universal fame and affection. In the years between, the world had changed. When the Little Tramp was born, the nineteenth century was still close. In 1936, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, he confronted anxieties that are not so different from those of the twenty-first century—poverty, unemployment, strikes and strike breakers, political intolerance, economic inequalities, the tyranny of the machine, and narcotics.

These were problems with which Chaplin had become acutely preoccupied in the course of an eighteen-month world tour in 1931–32, when he had observed the rise of nationalism and the social effects of the Depression, unemployment, and automation. In 1931, he declared to a newspaper interviewer, “Unemployment is the vital question. . . . Machinery should benefit mankind. It should not spell tragedy and throw it out of work.”

Exposing these problems to the searchlight of comedy, Chaplin transforms the Little Tramp into one of the millions working in factories throughout the world. He is first seen as a worker driven crazy by his monotonous, inhuman job on a conveyor belt and being used as a guinea pig to test a machine to feed workers as they perform their tasks. Exceptionally, the Little Tramp finds a companion in his battle with this new world—a young girl (Paulette Goddard) whose father has been killed in a strike and who joins forces with Chaplin. The couple are neither rebels nor victims, wrote Chaplin, but “the only two live spirits in a world of automatons.”

By the time Modern Times was released, talking pictures had been established for almost a decade. Chaplin considered using dialogue and even prepared a script, but he finally recognized that the Little Tramp depended on silent pantomime. At one moment, though, his voice is heard, when, hired as a singing waiter, he improvises the song in a wonderful, mock-Italian gibberish.

Conceived in four “acts,” each one equivalent to one of his old two-reel comedies, Modern Times shows Chaplin still at his unrivaled peak as a creator of visual comedy. The film survives no less as a commentary on human survival in the industrial, economic, and social circumstances of the twentieth—and perhaps the twenty-first—century. DR

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1930s




SWING TIME (1936)

U.S. (RKO) 103m BW

Director: George Stevens

Producer: Pandro S. Berman

Screenplay: Erwin Gelsey, Howard Lindsay, Allan Scott, from the story “Portrait of John Garnett” by Elwin Gelsey

Photography: David Abel

Music: Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields

Cast: Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Victor Moore, Helen Broderick, Eric Blore, Betty Furness, Georges Metaxa

Oscar: Jerome Kern, Dorothy Fields (music)

Oscar nomination: Hermes Pan (dance)

Steven jay schneider

A song-and-dance fantasia, George Stevens’s Swing Time is an audiovisual spectacle organized around a backstage musical. Certainly a high-water mark for the mid-1930s, the film is equally a tease of things to come in the combination of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

Assembled by legendary RKO producer Pandro S. Berman, Swing Time is the story of Lucky Garnett (Fred Astaire), a well-regarded hoofer engaged to the pleasant, though uninspiring, Margaret Watson (Betty Furness). When he’s forced to secure a large dowry to continue with his betrothal, their matrimonial plans are put on hold so he can seek his fortune in New York City. Once there, he meets Penny (Ginger Rogers), his true love, and thereafter the film more or less works through various disturbances before allowing them to fall into one another’s arms.

Naturally, there are several scenes of mistaken intent, a few nontragic plot turns, and a happy ending, despite brief periods of sorrow and hand-wringing. Yet the purpose of the film is undeniably the presentation of its musical numbers, several of which form part of the generic canon. Jerome Kern wrote the music, while Dorothy Fields provided most of the lyrics. Their combined efforts form the soundtrack’s foundation, although the sheer energy, verve, and happy distraction of Astaire and Rogers is what makes every number shine with the addition of movement and tap shoes.

Highlights include Lucky’s two solos in “The Way You Look Tonight,” a nightclub standard, and “Never Gonna Dance,” a sorrowfully ironic song given the actor’s well-recognized talent for walking on air. Two duets expand the big-screen canvas in “Waltz in Swing Time” with Astaire and Rogers and, of course, their famous performance of “A Fine Romance.” But the showstopper of the picture may well be “Bojangles of Harlem.” Here, Lucky begins his performance from within an accompanying chorus while dressed in blackface. Definitely a nod to his training and heritage, if also an antiquated, possibly offensive bit of cultural history, the number builds to a climax of Astaire dancing in triplicate with rear-projection versions of himself. GC-Q

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1930s




MY MAN GODFREY (1936)

U.S. (Universal) 94m BW

Director: Gregory La Cava

Producer: Gregory La Cava, Charles R. Rogers

Screenplay: Eric Hatch, Morrie Ryskind, from novel by Eric Hatch

Photography: Ted Tetzlaff

Music: Charles Previn, Rudy Schrager

Cast: William Powell, Carole Lombard, Alice Brady, Gail Patrick, Eugene Pallette, Alan Mowbray, Jean Dixon, Molly, Mischa Auer, Carlo, Robert Light, Pat Flaherty

Oscar nominations: Gregory La Cava (director), Eric Hatch, Morrie Ryskind (screenplay), William Powell (actor), Mischa Auer (actor in support role), Carole Lombard (actress), Alice Brady (actress in support role)

Steven jay schneider

As one of the masters of sophisticated salon comedies, Gregory La Cava might not have had the most aching social consciousness in 1930s Hollywood. But he had a knack for satire with a social and political edge that is clearly visible in films such as Gabriel over the White House (1933), She Married Her Boss (1935), and especially My Man Godfrey, his most memorable work. Made at the end of the Depression era, this screwball classic deals with poor bum Godfrey (William Powell) being hired as a butler as part of a high-society party game on Park Avenue. Some hundred snappy lines later he has taken complete control over the rich people’s house, charmed the beautiful Irene (Carole Lombard), exposed her birdbrained mother’s boy toy (well, he is called “protégé” because of the Production Code) as a con man, and helped her grumpy father avoid bankruptcy and prison for fraud.

Not surprisingly, it is revealed that Godfrey himself had only been slumming as a hobo when the rich party found him, and so he can marry the socialite of his dreams. However, by then the upper class have been paraded in front of the camera as a bunch of narcissistic, infantile idiots. No doubt this was one reason for the film’s great success with a mass audience in those days. My Man Godfrey loses some of its bite in the second half, when the fairy-tale ingredient takes over and ends the film on a silly note: that money is not everything! But even then it manages to captivate its audience by the sheer intelligence of its witty screenplay penned by novelist Eric Hatch and Morrie Ryskind. It has the true mark of a great film by not having a single bad line or weak character. La Cava’s pacing is sometimes strikingly fast, delivering machine-gun tongue dueling in virtually every scene and applying a narrative economy so effortless that the film could serve as a prototype for classic Hollywood cinema. Though it premiered nearly seventy years ago, My Man Godfrey still holds up in a remarkable way and could easily be remade for any audience. MT

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1930s




MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936)

U.S. (Columbia) 115m BW

Director: Frank Capra

Producer: Frank Capra

Screenplay: Clarence Budington Kelland, Robert Riskin

Photography: Joseph Walker

Music: Howard Jackson

Cast: Gary Cooper, Jean Arthur, George Bancroft, Lionel Stander, Douglass Dumbrille, Raymond Walburn, H.B. Warner, Ruth Donnelly, Walter Catlett, John Wray

Oscar: Frank Capra (director)

Oscar nominations: Frank Capra (best picture), Robert Riskin (screenplay), Gary Cooper (actor), John P. Livadary (sound)

Steven jay schneider

Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is the film that invented the screwball comedy and solidified director Frank Capra’s vision of American life, with a support of small-town, traditional values against self-serving city sophistication.

Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) is a poet from rural Vermont whose life changes, and not for the better, when he suddenly inherits the estate of his multimillionaire uncle, whose New York lawyers (used to skimming funds for their own use) try to convince him to keep them on the payroll. But after several misadventures and a trip to Manhattan, Deeds is convinced that the money will do him no good and tries to give it away, intending to endow a rural commune for displaced farmers. The lawyers immediately take him to court, claiming he is insane, for no one in their right mind would give away so much money. Crucial to Deeds’s eventual deliverance is Babe Bennett (Jean Arthur), a wisecracking reporter who first exploits the hick’s naïveté in order to write scathing exclusives about the “Cinderella Man.” Babe is transformed by Deeds’s idealism, however, and her testimony sways the court in the poor man’s favor.

Filled with bright comic moments (Deeds playing the tuba to clear his mind, feeding donuts to horses), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town is a hymn to antimaterialism and the simple country life in the best manner of Henry David Thoreau. RBP

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1930s




CAMILLE (1936)

U.S. (MGM) 109m BW

Director: George Cukor

Producer: David Lewis, Bernard H. Hyman

Screenplay: Zoe Akins, from the novel and play La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas, fils

Photography: William H. Daniels, Karl Freund

Music: Herbert Stothart, Edward Ward

Cast: Greta Garbo, Robert Taylor, Lionel Barrymore, Elizabeth Allan, Jessie Ralph, Henry Daniell, Lenore Ulric, Laura Hope Crews, Rex O’Malley

Oscar nomination: Greta Garbo (actress)

George Cukor’s Camille is one of the triumphs of early sound cinema, a showcase of superb acting from principals Greta Garbo and Robert Taylor, with able support from studio stalwarts Lionel Barrymore and Henry Daniell. Cukor evokes just enough of mid-nineteenth-century Paris to render affecting the melodramatic stylization of what is perhaps the most famous popular play ever written, adapted for the stage by Alexandre Dumas, fils, from his sensational novel. With its witty and suggestive dialogue, the script makes the novelist’s characters come alive for an American audience of another era.

Marguerite Gautier (Garbo), called Camille because of her love for the camellia, is a “courtesan” who falls in love with her “companion,” Armand Duval (Taylor), scion of an influential family. Their relationship, which can never be legitimized because of her dubious background, must come to an end and does so in two famous scenes that actresses have always relished. First, Armand’s father persuades Camille that she must give him up so that he can pursue a diplomatic career. Heartbroken, she dismisses Armand with the lie that he no longer interests her. Armand returns later to find her on her deathbed, where she expires while he weeps uncontrollably. The Breen Office, charged with the task of enforcing the industry’s then-reactionary Production Code, must also have been moved by this story of prohibited and tragic love, requiring only a scene in which the romantic pair, technically “illicit,” vow their undying love to one another. RBP

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1930s




SABOTAGE (1936)

G.B. (Gaumont British) 76m BW

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Producer: Michael Balcon, Ivor Montagu

Screenplay: Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, Helen Simpson, E.V.H. Emmett, from the novel The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

Photography: Bernard Knowles

Music: Louis Levy

Cast: Sylvia Sidney, Oskar Homolka, John Loder, Desmond Tester, Joyce Barbour, Matthew Boulton, S.J. Warmington, William Dewhurst

Alfred Hitchcock had just made a film entitled Secret Agent, based on stories by W. Somerset Maugham, and so his next project, based on Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, had to be retitled Sabotage. Oscar Homulka is Mr. Verloc, a sinister agent for a shadowy foreign power who carries out acts of sabotage. In a departure from the original novel, Verloc and his wife (Sylvia Sydney) manage a small cinema, which allows Hitchcock to have fun connecting events in the narrative to the films playing on the screen.

Sabotage has two memorable set pieces. In the first, Stevie (Desmond Tester), the young brother of Mrs. Verloc, is sent by her husband to deliver a can of film. Unknown to Stevie, it contains a bomb timed to go off at 1:45 P.M. As we track Stevie across London he is delayed by a series of holdups, and eventually the bomb explodes while he is sitting on a bus. Hitchcock later regretted this, judging that it violated the director’s contract with the audience, not to harm someone they had been encouraged to sympathize with—though he wound up doing exactly the same in Psycho (1960). In any case, the death of Stevie sets up the second bravura scene, the revengeful murder of Verloc by his wife. EB

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1930s




DODSWORTH (1936)

U.S. (Samuel Goldwyn) 101m BW

Director: William Wyler

Producer: Samuel Goldwyn, Merritt Hulburd

Screenplay: Sidney Howard, from novel by Sinclair Lewis

Photography: Rudolph Maté

Cast: Walter Huston, Ruth Chatterton, Paul Lukas, Mary Astor, David Niven, Gregory Gaye, Maria Ouspenskaya, Odette Myrtil, Spring Byington, Harlan Briggs, Kathryn Marlowe, John Payne

Oscar: Richard Day (art direction)

Oscar nominations: Samuel Goldwyn, Merritt Hulburd (best picture), William Wyler (director), Sidney Howard (screenplay), Walter Huston (actor), Maria Ouspenskaya (actress in support role), Oscar Lagerstrom (sound)

Steven jay schneider

William Wyler’s compelling adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s novel about the dissolution of a wealthy American couple’s marriage represents the height of intelligent Hollywood filmmaking. Walter Huston plays the title character, an automobile mogul, who, after selling his business, must face the challenges of an opulent retirement and decides to take a grand tour of Europe with his wife, Fran (Ruth Chatterton). They leave the United States to discover continental culture and refinement. In Europe, the couple discovers that each wants something different from life, though in their own ways both want to stave off old age. Fran becomes involved in flirtations with playboys who roam the periphery of the rich and fashionable set. She becomes increasingly impatient with Dodsworth’s stubbornly American, provincial ways. Dodsworth cannot reconcile with Fran and desperately fears becoming useless. On the journey they meet Edith Cortright (Mary Astor), an American expatriate who has found a new way to live and remain vibrant, and who can offer Dodsworth a solution.

The most remarkable aspects of the film are its moral complexity and its bittersweet tone. Wyler takes care not to portray Fran wholly as the villain; we are made to understand and sympathize with both husband and wife. Some of the most poignant moments of Dodsworth take place when Fran sees the illusory life that she has been trying to create fall apart around her. Huston, who was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards, is pitch perfect in this wide-ranging role. His character transforms from a confident self-made tycoon to a dejected, more thoughtful, older man. Huston registers these changes in an introspective, heart-wrenching performance. Astor, an extremely young and dashing David Niven, and Maria Ouspenskaya are all marvelous in supporting roles. At a time when mainstream American filmmaking all seems to be aimed at the tastes of fourteen-year-old boys, Dodsworth is a welcome reminder that Hollywood once made films for adults. RH

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1930s




THINGS TO COME (1936)

G.B. (London) 100m BW

Director: William Cameron Menzies

Producer: Alexander Korda

Screenplay: H.G. Wells from his novel The Shape of Things to Come

Photography: Georges Périnal

Music: Arthur Bliss

Cast: Raymond Massey, Edward Chapman, Ralph Richardson, Margaretta Scott, Cedric Hardwicke, Maurice Braddell, Sophie Stewart, Derrick De Marney, Ann Todd, Pearl Argyle, Kenneth Villiers, Ivan Brandt, Anne McLaren, Patricia Hilliard, Charles Carson

William Cameron Menzies’ screen version of H.G. Wells’s speculations about the world’s future after a disastrous second World War destroys European civilization is perhaps the first true science-fiction film. Only Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926) anticipates its envisioning of the future as a result of technological change and resulting political evolution, but Lang’s film doesn’t offer a similarly detailed analysis of the new course history might take. In fact, few science fiction movies are as concerned as is Things to Come with a rigorously historical approach to fictionalized prophecy, and this is perhaps because Wells himself penned the screenplay, based on ideas found in his popular tome The Outline of History.

Neither Wells nor Menzies took much interest in character-driven narrative (the main characters all represent important ideas), and so the film has seemed distant and uninvolving to many, an effect exacerbated by the fact that the story covers a full century of history. The second European war lasts twenty-five years and manages to destroy most of the world, which regresses to something like the cutthroat feudalism of the early Middle Ages. But human progress is inevitable, thanks to the fact that the intellectual and rational element in man always proves superior to the innate human urge toward self-destruction. Things to Come thus offers a more optimistic twist on Freud’s understanding of the perennial conflict between Eros and Thanatos, love and death, in human affairs.

Like many utopian writers, Wells sees the future as marked significantly by an increased human control over the environment. The film’s later sequences, as in Metropolis, are dominated by a vision of the city of the future. It was in his handling of these architectural and art-design aspects of the film that Menzies made his most significant and telling contribution. Despite its episodic narrative, Things to Come is visually spectacular, a predecessor of other science fiction films that imagine the urban future, including Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).

Despite the presence of well-known actors (including Raymond Massey, Cedric Hardwicke, and Ralph Richardson), what is most memorable about this unusual film is its engagement with a philosophy of history and of human nature. It captures the anxieties and hopes of 1930s Britain perfectly, chillingly forecasting the blitz that would descend upon London only four years after its release. RBP

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1930s




LE ROMAN D’UN TRICHEUR (1936)

THE STORY OF A CHEAT

France (Cinéas) 85m BW

Language: French

Director: Sacha Guitry

Producer: Serge Sandberg

Screenplay: Sacha Guitry

Photography: Marcel Lucien

Music: Adolphe Borchard

Cast: Sacha Guitry, Marguerite Moreno, Jacqueline Delubac, Roger Duchesne, Rosine Deréan, Elmire Vautier, Serge Grave, Pauline Carton, Fréhel, Pierre Labry, Pierre Assy, Henri Pfeifer, Gaston Dupray

Widely regarded as Sacha Guitry’s masterpiece (though it has competition in 1937’s Pearls of the Crown), this 1936 tour de force can be regarded as a kind of concerto for the writer-director-performer’s special brand of brittle cleverness. After a credits sequence that introduces us to the film’s cast and crew, The Story of a Cheat settles into a flashback account of how the title hero (played by Guitry himself) learned to benefit from cheating over the course of his life.

A notoriously anticinematic moviemaker whose first love was theater, Guitry nevertheless had a flair for cinematic antics when it came to adapting his plays (or in this case his novel Memoires d’un Tricheur) to film. The Story of a Cheat registers as a rather lively and stylishly inventive silent movie, with Guitry’s character serving as offscreen lecturer. François Truffaut was sufficiently impressed to dub Guitry a French brother of Ernst Lubitsch, though Guitry clearly differs from this master of continental romance in the way his own personality invariably overwhelms that of his characters. JS

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1930s




CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (1937)

U.S. (MGM) 115m BW

Director: Victor Fleming

Producer: Louis D. Lighton

Screenplay: Marc Connelly, John Lee Mahin, Dale Van Every, from novel by Rudyard Kipling

Photography: Harold Rosson

Music: Franz Waxman

Cast: Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, Melvyn Douglas, Charley Grapewin, Mickey Rooney, John Carradine, Oscar O’Shea, Jack La Rue, Walter Kingsford, Donald Briggs, Sam McDaniel, Bill Burrud

Oscar: Spencer Tracy (actor)

Oscar nominations: Louis D. Lighton (best picture), Marc Connelly, John Lee Mahin, Dale Van Every (screenplay), Elmo Veron (editing)

Rudyard Kipling, who died in 1936, did not live long enough to see three of his books adapted for the screen the following year, including Victor Fleming’s rousing childhood epic Captains Courageous. Freddie Bartholomew stars as Harvey Cheyne, a spoiled rich kid who, after drinking six ice cream sodas, falls off the ocean liner on which he and his father (Melvyn Douglas) are traveling. He has the good fortune to be picked up by a fishing boat out of Gloucester, whose crew, including the good-natured Manuel Fidello (Spencer Tracy), is unimpressed by his wealth and “position.” Humiliated, Harvey is left to his own resources, but under Manuel’s careful tutelage he learns the value of hard work and real accomplishment. Before they can return to port, however, Manuel dies in an accident. In port, Harvey is met by his father yet wants to stay with the fishermen, but after a moving memorial for his dead friend, father and son are reconciled.

Child star Bartholomew is excellent in a role that requires him to be both obnoxious and irresistible. And Spencer Tracy, his hair curled and face brown with makeup, does an excellent imitation of a Portuguese sailor. With humor, pathos, and an interesting moral, this is one of the best children’s movies Hollywood ever produced. RBP

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1930s




YE BAN GE SHENG (1937)

MIDNIGHT SONG

China (Xinhua) 123m BW

Language: Mandarin

Director: Ma-Xu Weibang

Producer: Shankun Zhang

Screenplay: Weibang Ma-Xu

Photography: Boqing Xue, Xingsan Yu

Music: Xinghai Xian (song)

Cast: Menghe Gu, Ping Hu, Shan Jin, Chao Shi

Gaston Leroux’s 1919 novel The Phantom of the Opera has inspired a score of films. Ma-Xu Weibang’s Midnight Song, made in Shanghai in 1936, is unarguably one of the most inspired. Ma-Xu (1905–1961) entered filmmaking as a title designer, graduating in turn to production design, acting, and direction. By the end of the silent period he had six films. Midnight Song was his second sound picture.

Midnight Song establishes its dark and eerie mood from the start, with the arrival of a touring opera company at a dilapidated theater, which they learn has been empty and crumbling since the apparent death there of the great opera star Song Danping, ten years before. The company’s young star is rehearsing alone in the theater when he hears a beautiful voice, which coaches him through his song. It is, of course, the fugitive Song Danping, now dreadfully disfigured, who reveals himself and relates his tragic story, shown in flashback. His physical state was inflicted on him on the orders of an evil feudal lord, angry at Song’s love for his daughter. Since then he has hidden in the theater, awaiting a singer who can assume his mantle and perform his great operatic creation. The young singer is chosen for this role, and also made envoy to Song’s lost love, Li Xiaoxia, whose mind has broken from sorrow.

The revolutionary difference from Western versions of Leroux is that the Phantom, instead of being a lurking menace, becomes a sympathetic and benevolent protagonist. In all other adaptations, the Phantom’s protégée is a female singer, and the Phantom is motivated by sexual jealousy of her fiancé. Changing the sex to a protégé, Ma-Xu develops more complex and ambiguous relationships. Song sees the young man as a surrogate for himself in the affections of Li Xiaoxia, and suffers jealousy on her behalf when he discovers the young man has himself a girlfriend.

All this is staged in richly atmospheric settings, with a masterly use of light and shadow clearly inspired by German Expressionist cinema. An important element in the film’s immense popularity were the songs, which have remained popular standards in China. In 1941, Ma-Xu was obliged to make a sequel, Midnight Song II, and the film has also inspired two Hong Kong remakes, Mid-Nightmare (1962) and The Phantom Lover (1995). DR

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1930s




LA GRANDE ILLUSION (1937)

GRAND ILLUSION

France (R.A.C.) 114m BW

Language: French / German / English

Director: Jean Renoir

Producer: Albert Pinkovitch, Frank Rollmer

Screenplay: Jean Renoir, Charles Spaak

Photography: Christian Matras

Music: Joseph Kosma

Cast: Jean Gabin, Dita Parlo, Pierre Fresnay, Erich von Stroheim, Julien Carette, Georges Péclet, Werner Florian, Jean Dasté, Sylvain Itkine, Gaston Modot, Marcel Dalio

Oscar nomination: Frank Rollmer, Albert Pinkovitch (best picture)

Venice Film Festival: Jean Renoir (overall artistic contribution), Jean Renoir (Mussolini Cup nomination)

Steven jay schneider

Sometimes it takes the horrors of war to reveal the things we all have in common. That humanistic irony is the central conceit of Jean Renoir’s masterpiece La Grand Illusion, a film set during World War I that finds levity and fraternity in a German POW camp. Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Captain de Boeldieu (Pierre Fresnay) are two French officers making the best of their situation with their men, under the watchful eye of the polite German commandant von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim). They’ve developed a mirror image of aristocratic society based on honor and order, a system of mutual respect and protocol based on years of tradition.

But it’s only an oasis—or, more specifically, a mirage—in the midst of devastating conflict, hence the title of the film: the grand illusion is that somehow class and upbringing sets these officers above the commonness of war, when in fact bullets don’t know one bloodline from another. They tirelessly dig an escape tunnel without considering that once they return to freedom, the false camaraderie encouraged by incarceration will once again revert to the harsh realities of life.

One of the most poignant aspects of La Grand Illusion is the feeling that the central characters understand this truth all too well, yet subconsciously wish things could be different. You can sense that von Stroheim’s melancholy commandant really wishes he were socializing with the French officers under different, less severe circumstances. In the POW camp, Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio) is one of the guys. On the outside, he’s just a Jew, a jarring reminder of the imminent evils of World War II. In fact, the Germans later banned La Grand Illusion during their eventual occupation of France, so effective was its ever timely humanistic vision. That Renoir’s remarkable film, with all its memorable characters, thought-provoking themes, and engaging dialogue, could have been lost forever because of its political viewpoint is a pointed reminder of the power of cinema and the ability of fiction to convey the kind of profound truths and moral guidelines that we use and need to direct our lives. JKl

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1930s




STELLA DALLAS (1937)

U.S. (Samuel Goldwyn) 105m BW

Director: King Vidor

Producer: Samuel Goldwyn, Merritt Hulburd

Screenplay: Joe Bigelow, Harry Wagstaff Gribble, Sarah Y. Mason, Gertrude Purcell, Victor Heerman, from novel by Olive Higgins Prouty

Photography: Rudolph Maté

Music: Alfred Newman

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, John Boles, Anne Shirley, Barbara O’Neil, Alan Hale, Marjorie Main, George Walcott, Ann Shoemaker, Tim Holt, Nella Walker, Bruce Satterlee, Jimmy Butler, Jack Egger, Dickie Jones

Oscars: Barbara Stanwyck (actress), Anne Shirley (actress in support role)

King Vidor’s Stella Dallas offers a lively and moving portrait of a workingclass woman strong enough to sacrifice herself for the sake of her daughter’s advancement in society. Olive Higgins Prouty’s famous novel had already been filmed successfully in 1925. But unlike Henry King’s silent version, Vidor’s has the advantage of Barbara Stanwyck in the title role.

Stanwyck plays Stella as a resilient, glamorous, intelligent woman. It’s easy to understand why well-to-do Stephen Dallas (John Boles) finds her attractive when he decides to abandon his family and strike out on his own. Not long after the birth of their daughter Laurel (Anne Shirley), however, Stephen wants to return to his former girlfriend. Stella raises Laurel on her own, devoting her life to the girl’s happiness, but as a teenager Laurel finds herself attracted to her father’s more affluent lifestyle and wants to live with him. Stella initially resists the move, but eventually relents, forcing her daughter to leave by pretending to be drunk and no longer interested in the young woman’s company. Laurel decamps to her father’s house and is soon married to a socialite at a huge wedding that her mother glimpses, tears streaming down her face, through a window from the street outside.

Stella will continue on, but never again will she cross the social divide separating her from Laurel. A moving and heartfelt story, under Vidor’s able direction Stella Dallas never descends into mawkish sentimentality. RBP

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1930s




THE LIFE OF ÉMILE ZOLA (1937)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 116m BW

Director: William Dieterle

Producer: Henry Blanke

Screenplay: Norman Reilly Raine, Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg, from book by Matthew Josephson

Photography: Tony Gaudio

Music: Max Steiner

Cast: Paul Muni, Gale Sondergaard, Joseph Schildkraut, Gloria Holden, Donald Crisp, Erin O’Brien-Moore, John Litel, Henry O’Neill, Morris Carnovsky, Louis Calhern, Ralph Morgan, Robert Barrat

Oscars: Henry Blanke (best picture), Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg, Norman Reilly Raine (screenplay), Joseph Schildkraut (actor in support role)

Oscar nominations: William Dieterle (director), Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg (screenplay), Paul Muni (actor), Anton Grot (art direction), Russell Saunders (assistant director), Max Steiner (music), Nathan Levinson (sound)

William Dieterle’s The Life of Émile Zola was a follow-up to his highly successful biopic The Story of Louis Pasteur (1935), with actor Paul Muni in another story about a Frenchman of principle and enlightenment overcoming prejudice. At the beginning Zola struggles to establish himself as a writer, until the publication of Nana, his sensational novel about a prostitute. Success follows success, and Zola is set to enjoy a prosperous old age when he is visited by the wife of Alfred Dreyfus, a French army officer falsely accused of spying for the Germans and sent to Devil’s Island. Zola’s conscience is pricked and, in a big set piece tailor-made for Muni, he reads out his famous article “J’Accuse” to a newspaper editor. In a typical Warner Brothers’s montage sequence, the newspaper staff gather around to listen, presses spew out the article, and people rush to buy the paper.

The film won an Oscar for Best Picture and its underlying seriousness is impressive. Yet though Dreyfus was the victim of anti-Semitic prejudice, not once in The Life of Émile Zola is the word “Jew” uttered. Evidently, Warner Brothers feared that in 1937, with the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe, pictures about anti-Jewish feeling would inflame the very prejudices they were designed to expose. EB

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1930s




MAKE WAY FOR TOMORROW (1937)

U.S. (Paramount) 91m BW

Director: Leo McCarey

Producer: Leo McCarey, Adolph Zukor

Screenplay: Viña Delmar, from the novel The Years Are So Long by Josephine Lawrence

Photography: William C. Mellor

Music: George Antheil, Victor Young, Sam Coslow, Leo Robin, Jean Schwartz

Cast: Victor Moore, Beulah Bondi, Fay Bainter, Thomas Mitchell, Porter Hall, Barbara Read, Maurice Moscovitch, Elisabeth Risdon, Minna Gombell, Ray Mayer, Ralph Remley, Louise Beavers, Louis Jean Heydt, Gene Morgan

Steven jay schneider

In this one-of-a-kind masterpiece by one of the greatest American directors, Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi play Bark and Lucy Cooper, an elderly couple faced with financial disaster and forced to throw themselves on the mercy of their middle-aged children. The children’s first step is to separate the two of them so that the inconvenience of hosting them can be divided. Gradually, the old people’s self-confidence and dignity are eroded, until they submit to an arrangement whereby one of them will stay in a nursing home in New York, and the other will go to California.

Leo McCarey’s direction in Make Way for Tomorrow is beyond praise. All of the actors are expansive and natural, and the generosity McCarey shows toward his characters is unstinting. He demonstrates an exquisite sense of when to cut from his central couple to reveal the attitudes of others, without suggesting either that their compassion is condescending or that their indifference is wicked, and without forcing our tears or rage (which would be a way of forfeiting them). There is nothing contrived about McCarey’s handling of the story, and thus no escaping its poignancy.

Two examples will suffice to indicate the film’s extraordinary discretion. During the painful sequence in which Lucy’s presence inadvertently interferes with her daughter-in-law’s attempt to host a bridge party, Lucy receives a phone call from Bark. Because she talks loudly on the phone—one of several annoying traits that McCarey and screenwriter Viña Delmar don’t hesitate to give the elderly couple—the guests pause in their games to listen. Their reactions (not emphasized, but merely shown) mix annoyance, discomfort, and sorrow.

The last section of the film, dealing with the couple’s brief reuniting and impromptu last idyll in Manhattan, is sublime. McCarey keeps us aware of the sympathy of outsiders (a car salesman, a coat-check girl, a hotel manager, a bandleader), but never imposes their reactions on us through superfluous reverse shots. Meanwhile, Lucy and Bark are constantly shown together in the same compositions. In its passionate commitment to their private universe, Make Way for Tomorrow is truly, deeply moving. CFu

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1930s




SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES (1937)

U.S. (Walt Disney) 83m Technicolor

Producer: Walt Disney

Screenplay: Ted Sears, Richard Creedon

Photography: Maxwell Morgan

Music: Frank Churchill, Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith

Cast: Roy Atwell, Stuart Buchanan, Adriana Caselotti, Eddie Collins, Pinto Colvig, Marion Darlington, Billy Gilbert, Otis Harlan, Lucille La Verne, James MacDonald, Scotty Mattraw, Moroni Olsen, Harry Stockwell

Oscar: (honorary award—one statuette, seven miniature statuettes)

Oscar nomination: Frank Churchill, Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith (music)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves begins with a slow zoom to a huge castle, where the wicked Queen queries her magic mirror with the immortal words, “Mirror mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all?” The answer, of course, is her virginal rival Snow White, soon to be the target of her vanity. Like the classic Brothers Grimm story Snow White is based on, you are instantly pulled into this magical and sometime scary world. Yet at the time Hollywood considered Walt Disney’s first foray into full-length feature animation something of a folly. Who would sit through a ninety-minute animated film?

Needless to say, Snow White answered that rhetorical question by becoming one of the biggest hits in the history of cinema, solidifying Disney’s claim as the world’s foremost animation studio. In fact, advancing the stake was one of Walt Disney’s own stated goals for the film. He had already broken the cartoon sound barrier with Steamboat Willy, and a few years later brought animation into vivid color. Snow White was merely the next step forward both artistically as well as financially: feature films meant more box-office sales.

Using the Brothers Grimm story as loose inspiration, Disney unleashed his team of animators on the material, giving them a great deal of freedom in the development of such a creative breakthrough. The film is peppered with gags but also filled with emotion, comprising a soaring combination of beautiful images and strong, enduring songs like “Whistle While You Work” and “Some Day My Prince Will Come,” the latter virtually a standard. Snow White, incidentally, also marked the first commercially released soundtrack.

There is no way to overestimate the effect of Snow White. It not only permanently established Disney as one of the foremost studios in the world but also advanced the state of animation to such a degree that it wasn’t really until the advent of computer animation that anyone arguably pushed the form further. A creative triumph, Snow White inspired hundreds of imitators, gave birth to an empire, and remains to this day the default template for nearly all animated features. JKl

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1930s




THE AWFUL TRUTH (1937)

U.S. (Columbia) 91m BW

Director: Leo McCarey

Producer: Leo McCarey, Everett Riskin

Screenplay: Viña Delmar, from play by Arthur Richman

Photography: Joseph Walker

Music: Ben Oakland, George Parrish

Cast: Irene Dunne, Cary Grant, Ralph Bellamy, Alexander D’Arcy, Cecil Cunningham, Molly Lamont, Esther Dale, Joyce Compton, Robert Allen, Robert Warwick, Mary Forbes

Oscar: Leo McCarey (director)

Oscar nominations: Leo McCarey, Everett Riskin (best picture), Viña Delmar (screenplay), Irene Dunne (actress), Ralph Bellamy (actor in support role), Al Clark (editing)

Steven jay schneider

The legend of Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth is that it was largely improvised from day to day. This legend is perfectly in tune with the ethos of the film itself, in which spontaneity, playfulness, the ability to laugh at one’s own “act” (as well as to see it with the eye of the person who is seeing right through you at that moment) are so central to its glorious, warm sense of humor as well as its exploration of how to make marriage work.

But the script structure, however it was arrived at, is satisfying. It starts with a rupture: Jerry (Cary Grant) and Lucy (Irene Dunne), believing they have caught each other in infidelities, lies, and—worst of all—a lack of trust, decide to divorce. It takes half the film, covering Lucy’s flirtation with Dan (Ralph Bellamy), for her to realize she still loves Jerry. But then it’s his turn to hook up with someone, a “madcap heiress.” Once all these bets are off, the story becomes a road movie leading to a cabin in the woods—with two beds, and thirty minutes left before the divorce decree becomes final.

McCarey perfects every ingredient of the romantic comedy here, from the opposition of New Yorkers and Southerners, to the role of games, songs, and dances as ways of sorting out the characters’ affections and allegiances. Full of splendid minor characters and inspired bits of business, The Awful Truth also has a heartbreakingly serious moment when Jerry and Lucy remember their unofficial marriage vow (“This comes from the heart, I’ll always adore you”).

Of all the great movies, this may be the one that most resists description in words. This has much to do with its small jokes of subtle verbal delivery, where ordinary phrases are transformed by timing, rhythm, and tone, from Lucy’s defensively repeated “had better go” and Jerry’s stumbling on “Tulsa” to Dan’s exasperated “Mom!” via the black servant’s reaction to Jerry’s fake tan: “You’re looking weellll.” Above all, the film is a monument to the sheer, magical lovability of its stars. AM

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1930s




PÉPÉ LE MOKO (1937)

France (Paris) 90m BW

Language: French

Director: Julien Duvivier

Producer: Raymond Hakim, Robert Hakim

Screenplay: Jacques Constant, Julien Duvivier

Photography: Marc Fossard, Jules Kruger

Music: Vincent Scotto, Mohamed Ygerbuchen

Cast: Jean Gabin, Mireille Balin, Gabriel Gabrio, Lucas Gridoux, Gilbert Gil, Line Noro, Saturnin Fabre, Fernand Charpin, Marcel Dalio, Charles Granval, Gaston Modot, René Bergeron, Paul Escoffier, Roger Legris, Jean Témerson

Pépé le Moko was the film that consolidated Jean Gabin’s stardom and defined his on-screen persona as a tough, streetwise character, outwardly cynical but with an underlying romantic streak that will cause his downfall. As Pépé, an expatriate French hood who has become top dog in the Casbah (the Arab quarter of Algiers), he relishes his power but yearns nostalgically for Paris. When a beautiful French tourist (Mireille Balin), the embodiment of his longedfor homeland, catches his eye, the temptation becomes too great. But once outside the Casbah he’s vulnerable because there a tireless policeman (Lucas Gridoux) lies in wait.

Director Julien Duvivier’s skill at evoking atmosphere creates a vivid (if romanticized) vision of the Casbah, an exotic labyrinth of twisting alleyways full of pungent detail. Borrowing motifs from the classic Hollywood gangster movies but seasoning them with doomy Gallic romanticism, Pépé le Moko prefigures film noir. Images of bars, grilles, and fences recur throughout the film, underlining Pépé’s entrapment within his little fiefdom. The movie is pervaded by a mood of longing, of lost youthful dreams, and of desires that can never be fulfilled. This fatalism led to its being banned during the war by the Vichy regime, but its warm reception after this temporary absence only confirmed its status as a classic. PK

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1930s




JEZEBEL (1938)

U.S. (First National, Warner Bros.) 103m BW

Director: William Wyler

Producer: Henry Blanke, Hal B. Wallis, William Wyler

Screenplay: Clements Ripley, Abem Finkel, John Huston, Robert Buckner, from play by Owen Davis

Photography: Ernest Haller

Music: Al Dubin, Max Steiner, Harry Warren

Cast: Bette Davis, Henry Fonda, George Brent, Margaret Lindsay, Donald Crisp, Fay Bainter, Richard Cromwell, Henry O’Neill, Spring Byington, John Litel, Gordon Oliver, Janet Shaw, Theresa Harris, Margaret Early, Irving Pichel

Oscar: Bette Davis (actress)

Oscar nominations: Hal B. Wallis, Henry Blanke (best picture), Fay Bainter (actress), Ernest Haller (photography), Max Steiner (music)

Hollywood’s second most famous portrayal of a spoiled Southern belle, Jezebel offered Bette Davis the perfect vehicle to display her acting talents in a breakthrough role. Davis plays Julie Marsden, who is the most sought-after debutante in 1850s New Orleans, a society ruled by rigid codes of behavior that the young woman finds confining. Engaged to Preston Dillard (Henry Fonda), Julie does not sever her relationship to Buck Cantrell (George Brent), an honorable Southern gentleman and the story’s most sympathetic figure. Soon after, Preston leaves New Orleans to travel north, where he works; when he comes back to the city, he is married to another woman. In her petulance, Julie causes a duel in which Buck is killed, and she becomes a pariah, even to her own family. But then she redeems herself through heroic self-sacrifice during a yellow fever outbreak, when she accompanies the desperately ill Preston to the miserable island where victims of the disease are confined.

William Wyler makes use of a lavish budget and meticulous art design in this intriguing evocation of the period. Much more of a character study than Gone with the Wind (1939), Jezebel also avoids the “plantation myth” so prominent in that film. Its New Orleans is a decadent place with no dancing darkies, ruled by a planter class intent on its jealous sense of honor. RBP

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1930s




THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (1938)

U.S. (First National, Warner Bros.) 102m Technicolor

Director: Michael Curtiz, William Keighley

Producer: Henry Blanke, Hal B. Wallis

Screenplay: Norman Reilly Raine, Seton I. Miller

Photography: Tony Gaudio, Sol Polito

Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Cast: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette, Alan Hale, Melville Cooper, Ian Hunter, Una O’Connor, Herbert Mundin, Montagu Love, Leonard Willey, Robert Noble, Kenneth Hunter

Oscar: Carl Jules Weyl (art direction), Ralph Dawson (editing), Erich Wolfgang Korngold (music)

Oscar nomination: Hal B. Wallis, Henry Blanke (best picture)

Whether considered as a swashbuckler, a costume romance, or a mockery of history, The Adventures of Robin Hood is simply the best production of its kind ever made. With King Richard on the Crusades, the kingdom is ruled by his rotten brother John, played by Claude Rains as a waspish tyrant who overhears groans from a torture chamber and muses, “Ah, more complaints about the new taxes from our Saxon friends.” John’s less amusing but more deadly sidekick, Sir Guy of Gisbourne, is incarnated with razor-profiled malice by the unmatchably ruthless Basil Rathbone.

The fairest lady in the land is Marian, an impossibly lovely Olivia de Havilland in Technicolor flesh tones. But it’s dispossessed outlaw Robin of Locksley who brings life to this court of intrigue, with Errol Flynn’s jaunty goatee and Tasmanian twinkle making Robin a rare hero who can be a light-hearted trickster one moment but spin on a knife-point to become a determined rebel (“Norman or Saxon, what’s that matter? It’s injustice I hate, not the Normans.”) and a balcony-climbing romantic.

It is truly amazing how fast-paced and jam-packed this movie is: the story is as complicated as a Shakespearean comedy; there’s a real delight in the sword-clashing and arrow-shooting battles, and it ends as all stories should—with good triumphant and lovers united. KN

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1930s




ANGELS WITH DIRTY FACES (1938)

U.S. (First National) 97m BW

Director: Michael Curtiz

Producer: Samuel Bischoff

Screenplay: Rowland Brown, John Wexley, Warren Duff

Photography: Sol Polito

Music: Max Steiner

Cast: James Cagney, Pat O’Brien, Humphrey Bogart, Ann Sheridan, George Bancroft, Billy Halop, Bobby Jordan, Leo Gorcey, Gabriel Dell, Huntz Hall, Bernard Punsly, Joe Downing, Edward Pawley, Adrian Morris, Frankie Burke

Oscar nominations: Michael Curtiz (director), Rowland Brown (screenplay), James Cagney (actor)

Michael Curtiz’s films preach social responsibility, and Angels with Dirty Faces is his most powerful sermon. Rocky and Jerry, two pals from a tough New York neighborhood, grow up to be a notorious gangster (James Cagney) and crusading priest (Pat O’Brien), respectively. A gang of teenagers idolize Rocky, until Father Jerry urges his condemned friend to “go yellow” at his execution. In keeping with its didactic mission, the film’s visual and performing styles are emphatic and crisp to the point of caricature. In fact, Cagney’s performance here, all cocky swagger and hitched-up shoulders, provided the primary model for impressionists such as Frank Gorshin and Rich Little.

Curtiz may be a moralizer, but he is not a facile one. Rocky’s final capitulation is a tough pill to swallow, and the director does not sugarcoat it. Rocky is a charismatic rebel, and Father Jerry is a sanctimonious nag, but the film leaves little doubt which choice serves the greater good. The harrowing climax, a nightmare of gruesome details and expressionist shadows as Rocky is dragged whimpering to the electric chair, still has the power to enrage viewers who do not share the film’s stern moral viewpoint, but, for Father Mike, such attitudes are sentimental at best and irresponsible at worst. Amen. MR

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1930s




OLYMPIA (1938)

OLYMPIA 1. TEIL: FEST DER VÖLKER

PART 1: FESTIVAL OF THE NATIONS

OLYMPIA 2. TEIL: FEST DER SCHÖNHEIT

PART 2: FESTIVAL OF BEAUTY

Germany (IOC, Olympia Film, Tobis) 118 m and 107m BW

Language: German

Director: Leni Riefenstahl

Producer: Leni Riefenstahl

Screenplay: Leni Riefenstahl

Photography: Wilfried Basse, Werner Bundhausen, Leo De Lafrue, Walter Frentz, Hans Karl Gottschalk, Willy Hameister, Walter Hege, Carl Junghans, Albert Kling, Ernst Kunstmann, Guzzi Lantschner, Otto Lantschner, Kurt Neubert, Erich Nitzschmann, Hans Scheib, Hugo O. Schulze, Karoly Vass, Willy Zielke, Andor von Barsy, Franz von Friedl, Heinz von Jaworsky, Hugo von Kaweczynski, Alexander von Lagorio

Music: Herbert Windt, Walter Gronostay

Cast: David Albritton, Jack Beresford, Henri de Baillet-Latour, Philip Edwards, Donald Finlay, Wilhelm Frick, Josef Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Ernest Harper, Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler, Cornelius Johnson, Theodor Lewald, Luz Long, John Lovelock, Ralph Metcalfe, Seung-yong Nam, Henri Nannen, Dorothy Odam, Martinus Osendarp, Jesse Owens, Leni Riefenstahl, Julius Schaub, Fritz Schilgen, Kee-chung Sohn, Julius Streicher, Forrest Towns, Werner von Blomberg, August von Mackensen, Glenn Morris, Conrad von Wangenheim

Venice Film Festival: Leni Riefenstahl (Mussolini Cup—best film)

Steven jay schneider

Leni Riefenstahl’s epic documentary of the 1936 Olympic Games held in Berlin is sometimes criticized for its politics. Sponsored by Hitler, the film does contain some sequences that seem to support the notion of “Aryan” superiority. Still, the filmmaker did receive a gold medal for her efforts from the Olympic Committee in 1948, long after Hitler’s dream of a thousand-year Reich had disintegrated. This is not to deny that Olympia is a piece of propaganda; Riefenstahl would never have received the incredible funding and support needed if the result had not been politically useful. In many ways, though, Olympia transcends politics. Overall, it is more a hymn of praise to athletic prowess and to the poetry of the human body in motion.

Few filmmakers have shown Riefenstahl’s aesthetic interest in physical form and motion, and her feat in making this documentary has never been duplicated. Filming the games and supervising the immense task of postproduction would take a Herculean effort today. In the late 1930s, the job was done with primitive equipment. Despite its overtly political message (the opening traces the carrying of the Olympic torch from Greece to Germany as a kind of holy quest), the film is an artistic triumph, evidence not only of Riefenstahl’s personal talent and vision, but also of the energies and expertise of her team of assistants, who numbered several hundred.

Huge preparation was necessary. Steel camera towers were constructed in the stadium, platforms built for tracking shots, and Germany scoured for the best talent. Nearly 250 hours of film was shot, and the task of editing (including the addition of sound effects and music) was personally supervised by Riefenstahl. The final edited version, in the best tradition of German documentary cinema, is masterfully paced, with exquisite matched cuts and just enough variation in repetitive events (such as the featured track and field) to sustain visual interest. Riefenstahl’s protestations of political innocence may be unconvincing, but Olympia does have another and more enduring side. Simply put, it is the most moving cinematic record of human sport and physical competition ever produced. RBP

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1930s




LA FEMME DU BOULANGER (1938)

THE BAKER’S WIFE

France (Marcel Pagnol) 133m BW

Language: French

Director: Marcel Pagnol

Producer: Leon Bourrely, Charles Pons

Screenplay: Marcel Pagnol, from the novel Jean le Bleu by Jean Giono

Photography: Georges Benoît

Music: Vincent Scotto

Cast: Raimu, Ginette Leclerc, Robert Vattier, Robert Bassac, Fernand Charpin, Edouard Delmont, Charles Blavette, Marcel Maupi, Maximilienne, Alida Rouffe, Odette Roger, Charles Moulin, Yvette Fournier, Charblay, Julien Maffre

Steven jay schneider

Orson Welles thought that Raimu was one of the greatest actors of his time; The Baker’s Wife proves him right. Directed by Marcel Pagnol from a short story by Jean Giono, this is the tale of Aimable Castanier, a middle-aged baker (Raimu) in a small Provençal village. When his young wife Aurélie (Ginette Leclerc) deserts him for a handsome shepherd, the distraught baker stops baking and without bread the village comes to a halt. Catholic priest, left-wing teacher, lord of the manor, and all the villagers forget their old feuds and gang up to bring back the errant wife. Life resumes happily.

From such simple material Pagnol fashioned a comic gem and a humanist masterpiece. With his regular troupe of actors—Raimu, Fernand Charpin, Robert Vattier, and others—Pagnol animates a galaxy of characters that is both funny and touching. His light touch and the actors’ talents transcend the crude stereotypes (womanizing aristocrat, pedantic teacher, cantankerous old maid, cuckolded husband), creating a world in which each has his or her own clearly defined role. Giono and Pagnol’s Provence is conservative and patriarchal (the wife does not have much of a say), but it is a world in which shared fundamental values—here represented by bread, both a Christian and pagan symbol—cement social cohesiveness.

Raimu’s towering performance effortlessly alternates comic theatricality with minimalist realism, turning his comic cuckold into a tragic hero. Raimu, from the South of France himself, was a superlative stage actor, at ease with the florid language and emphatic delivery of the Marseilles vernacular. His filmic modernity, however, came from his ability to switch within seconds to understated moments, giving them extraordinary emotional impact, as illustrated by the film’s most famous scene. As the repentant wife returns, Raimu welcomes her back as if nothing had happened and instead takes it out on a surrogate, the straying female cat “Pomponnette,” in the most vivid and affecting terms. In this moment of contrived high comedy I defy anyone to remain dry-eyed. It may be called The Baker’s Wife, but it is definitely Raimu’s film. GV

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1930s




BRINGING UP BABY (1938)

U.S. (RKO) 102m BW

Director: Howard Hawks

Producer: Howard Hawks, Cliff Reid

Screenplay: Hagar Wilde, Dudley Nichols

Photography: Russell Metty

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, Charles Ruggles, Walter Catlett, Barry Fitzgerald, May Robson, Fritz Feld, Leona Roberts, George Irving, Tala Birell, Virginia Walker, John Kelly

Steven jay schneider

Bringing Up Baby, the definitive screwball comedy, was the first film Howard Hawks made in a six-picture contract with RKO in 1937. Unpromisingly based on a short story about a young couple and their tamed leopard, the shoot went forty days over schedule and over budget. It earned so little upon its release in 1938 that Hawks was fired from RKO and Katherine Hepburn had to buy herself out of her own contract. Ahead of its time, its amazing breakneck pace and disarmingly witty dialogue set new standards for all such comedies thereafter.

At his whimsical best, Cary Grant is Dr. David Huxley, a handsome and easily distracted paleontologist who spends his days piecing together a brontosaurus skeleton while he is taken apart by his henpecking fiancée. With one more bone to go before the four-year museum project will be complete, Huxley manages to bumble an important meeting on the golf course with a wealthy potential patron. There, Huxley meets Susan Vance (Hepburn). As beautiful and scatterbrained as he is, she steals his golf ball; after that, Huxley’s world never snaps back into place. Trying anything to keep him from marrying another girl, Vance uses Baby, the house-trained pet leopard sent to her by her brother in South America, as a worthy Huxley diversion. By the time the family dog buries Huxley’s precious dinosaur bone, the couple are headed to jail.

The laughs in Bringing Up Baby are real, almost completely disguising its deft analyses of 1930s-style gender expectations, sex, and marriage. So suspicious was the censor of the script’s deeper and possibly sexual meanings that Huxley’s quest to find his “lost bone” was queried as a reference to lost masculinity. The scene where Huxley dons Vance’s feathery feminine bathrobe didn’t help dissuade that notion, containing as it does one of the first popular appearances of the word “gay” being used to mean something other than “extremely happy.” The critics may have hated it, the audiences may have stayed away, and Oscar didn’t smile upon it at the time, but Bringing Up Baby has had the last laugh on all its detractors. It remains one of the true masterpieces of celluloid wit. KK

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1930s




STAGECOACH (1939)

U.S. (Walter Wanger) 96m BW

Director: John Ford

Producer: Walter Wanger, John Ford

Screenplay: Ernest Haycox, Dudley Nichols

Photography: Bert Glennon

Music: Louis Gruenberg, Richard Hageman, Franke Harling, John Leipold, Leo Shuken

Cast: Claire Trevor, John Wayne, Andy Devine, John Carradine, Thomas Mitchell, Louise Platt, George Bancroft, Donald Meek, Berton Churchill, Tim Holt, Tom Tyler

Oscars: Thomas Mitchell (actor in support role), Richard Hageman, W. Franke Harling, John Leipold, Leo Shuken (music)

Oscar nominations: Walter Wanger (best picture), John Ford (director), Bert Glennon (photography), Alexander Toluboff (art direction), Otho Lovering, Dorothy Spencer (editing)

Steven jay schneider

The 1930s wasn’t a great decade for the Western. After a few expensive flops such as The Big Trail (1930) and Cimarron (1931), the major studios largely abandoned the genre to Poverty Row producers making cheap B-movies. John Ford hadn’t made a Western for a dozen years when he cast John Wayne and Claire Trevor in a story about a stagecoach ride through dangerous Indian territory. In trying to sell it to producer David O. Selznick, Ford described Stagecoach as a “classic Western,” a cut above the B-Westerns that Wayne himself had been making. One thing this meant was giving it more appeal to women in the audience. So Ford and screenwriter Dudley Nichols added to the original story by Ernest Haycox a more developed love story and the birth of a baby. But this wasn’t enough for Selznick, who looked down his nose and passed on the project.

Not that Stagecoach stints on the genre’s more traditional satisfactions. The last part of the film packs in plenty of action, including a gunfight between Wayne and the Plummer gang and a stirring Indian attack as the stagecoach careers across the flat desert. The sequence was enriched by some superlative stuntwork by Yakima Canutt, who, playing one of the Apache attackers, leaps onto one of the stage’s horses, is then shot, and has to fall between the horses’ hooves and under the wheels.

This was Wayne’s second chance at major stardom after the failure of The Big Trail, and he took it with both hands. From his first entrance, standing in the desert waving down the stage, he cuts an impressive figure as the Ringo Kid, who has busted out of jail in order to be revenged on the Plummers, killers of his father and brother. But Wayne’s appearance is delayed while Ford explores the characters of the other travelers on the coach. Each is deftly and memorably sketched in: Dallas (Claire Trevor), the girl who is no better than she should be, and who is run out of town together with drunken Doc Boone (Thomas Mitchell) by the puritanical ladies of the Law and Order League; Peacock (Donald Meek), a timid whiskey salesman; Hatfield (John Carradine), a Southern gambler; Mrs. Mallory (Louise Platt), the pregnant wife of a cavalry officer; and Gatewood (Berton Churchill), a banker who is making off with the assets. On the outside of the coach are Buck (Andy Devine), the portly driver, and Curly (George Bancroft), the local sheriff. The interaction between this oddly assorted group allows Ford to explore a cherished theme, the superior moral qualities of those whom “respectable” society disdains.

Stagecoach was the first film Ford shot in Monument Valley, a landscape of towering sandstone buttes on the border between Utah and Arizona. As the tiny coach makes its way through the vastness of the desert, the frailty of its occupants is doubly emphasized as the camera tracks toward a group of Indians observing its progress. Ford makes no attempt to present the Indians as individuals; they are merely a force of nature.

The film’s healthy performance at the box office helped reestablish the Western genre. EB

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1930s




ZANGIKU MONOGATARI (1939)

THE STORY OF THE LATE CHRYSANTHEMUMS

Japan (Shochiku) 143m BW

Language: Japanese

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Screenplay: Matsutarô Kawaguchi, Yoshikata Yoda, from novel by Shôfû Muramatsu

Photography: Yozô Fuji, Minoru Miki

Music: Shirô Fukai, Senji Itô

Cast: Shôtarô Hanayagi, Kôkichi Takada, Gonjurô Kawarazaki, Kakuko Mori, Tokusaburo Arashi, Yôko Umemura

In the nineteenth century, a lazy and untalented Kabuki actor born into a famous family falls in love with his brother’s wet nurse. Opposed to their match, his family casts her out of the house. He follows her, and she devotes her life to helping him improve his art, ruining her health in the process. In the end, she dies at home while he, having at last achieved recognition as an actor, leads his troupe on a triumphal boat procession through Osaka.

The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums is one of the essential Kenji Mizoguchi films, a work of dazzling elegance and formal rigor and a powerful attack on the social structures that impose the roles of sacrificial victims upon women. Mizoguchi’s long takes move the narrative slowly, enfolding the inexorable logic of events within larger and more complex structures. The film allows time for reflection and interiorization, as the characters, recognizing their places in the patterns of power, react to events with fear, horror, sadness, or revolt. The narrative, with its emphasis on metaphorical journeys—the migrations of the acting troupe and the hero’s path to artistic excellence—allows Mizoguchi to create a double metaphorical filter. For him, cinema and theater are machines for the distillation of beauty and the achievement of tragic understanding. CFu

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1930s




BABES IN ARMS (1939)

U.S. (MGM) 93m BW

Director: Busby Berkeley

Producer: Arthur Freed

Screenplay: Jack McGowan, Kay Van Riper

Photography: Ray June

Music: Harold Arlen, Nacio Herb Brown, Richard Rodgers

Cast: Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, Charles Winninger, Guy Kibbee, June Preisser, Grace Hayes, Betty Jaynes, Douglas McPhail, Rand Brooks, Leni Lynn, Henry Hull, Barnett Parker, Ann Shoemaker, Margaret Hamilton, Joseph Crehan

Oscar nominations: Mickey Rooney (actor), Roger Edens, George E. Stoll (music—score)

Busby Berkeley, key contributor to the waning spectacle-oriented musical at Warner Brothers, made Babes in Arms shortly after his move to book-oriented MGM, and its success spawned three similar follow-ups re-teaming Berkeley with adolescent icons Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland.

The film centers on the generation gap, MGM/1939-style. To close that gap, it moves in two directions—a nostalgic recollection of the dying entertainment tradition (minstrel show, vaudeville) practiced by the kids’ parents, and the kids’ demand to claim their place in the spotlight over their parents’ objections. This impatience erupts in the film’s most impressive number, “Babes in Arms.” Rooney leads a defiant mob of torch-toting juveniles (“They call us babes in arms, / But we are babes in armor!”) through winding back alleys to a playground where nursery rhymes counterpoint the main song and a raging bonfire signifies the immolation of childish things. Those oh-so-earnest kids tend to get a little soppy at times, so Babes in Arms benefits from the drier presence of June Preisser, as an amiably arrogant ex-child star, and Margaret Hamilton, at her Wicked Witch best, as a biddy who wants to toss all the stage brats into a state work school. MR

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1930s




MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939)

U.S. (Columbia) 125m BW

Director: Frank Capra

Producer: Frank Capra

Screenplay: Lewis R. Foster, Sidney Buchman

Photography: Joseph Walker

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Cast: Jean Arthur, James Stewart, Claude Rains, Edward Arnold, Guy Kibbee, Thomas Mitchell, Eugene Pallette, Beulah Bondi, H.B. Warner, Harry Carey, Astrid Allwyn, Ruth Donnelly, Grant Mitchell, Porter Hall, Pierre Watkin

Oscar: Lewis R. Foster (screenplay)

Oscar nominations: Frank Capra (best picture), Frank Capra (director), Sidney Buchman (screenplay), James Stewart (actor), Claude Rains (actor in support role), Harry Carey (actor in support role), Lionel Banks (art direction), Gene Havlick, Al Clark (editing), Dimitri Tiomkin (music), John P. Livadary (sound)

Steven jay schneider

Frank Capra’s hymn of praise to the American system of government was considered so incisive in its indictment of special-interest corruption that some in Washington thought Mr. Smith Goes to Washington should not be released into a world on the verge of war. To show that the system works, however, Capra must demonstrate how it can correct itself. Republicanism (not democracy) is saved in the film by the heroic efforts of a stubborn idealist, who, in the best tradition of the Jeffersonian individualism for which he is named, refuses to go along with party bosses, who plot his ruin. Ashamed, the smooth-talking machine politician assigned to discredit him publicly confesses the plot.

Jimmy Stewart is perfect as Jefferson Smith, whose chief qualification is that he is hopelessly unsophisticated, a man who spends all his time mentoring a troop of young “rangers.” But this rube is neither stupid nor lacking in courage. Smith first convinces the cynical woman (Jean Arthur) charged with looking after him of his virtue and his keen sense. And then, after unintentionally creating trouble by proposing a national boys’ camp on the precise site that the “machine” hopes to use for its pork barrel project, he defends himself against false charges in a filibuster that goes on for many hours and leaves him barely able to speak or stand. Crucial in Smith’s passage from irrelevance through disgrace to vindication is the part played by Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). As opposed to the crudely venal political boss Jim Taylor (Edward Arnold), Paine is a man who believes in the American system but who has been seduced by a politics of compromise and deal making. Smith can only be rescued by Paine’s conversion. Smith’s deliverance is also made possible by the peculiarly American institution of the filibuster, which permits the individual—symbolically enough, not the group—unlimited free speech according to established rules. Smith can thereby exert a power against the group that would condemn him, insuring his vindication.

An impressive bit of Americana, Capra’s film is full of memorable moments, the most moving of which is the montage sequence tracing the newly arrived senator’s tour of Washington monuments, including the Lincoln memorial. RBP

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1930s




THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)

U.S. (MGM) 101m BW / Technicolor

Director: Victor Fleming

Producer: Mervyn LeRoy, Arthur Freed

Screenplay: Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson, Edgar Allan Woolf, from the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum

Photography: Harold Rosson

Music: Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg, George Bassman, George E. Stoll, Herbert Stothart

Cast: Judy Garland, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Billie Burke, Margaret Hamilton, Charley Grapewin, Pat Walshe, Clara Blandick, Terry the dog, The Singer Midgets

Oscars: Herbert Stothart (music), Harold Arlen, E.Y. Harburg (song)

Oscar nominations: Mervyn LeRoy (best picture), Harold Rosson (photography), Cedric Gibbons, William A. Horning (art direction), A. Arnold Gillespie (special visual effects), Douglas Shearer (special sound effects)

Cannes Film Festival: Victor Fleming (Golden Palm nomination)

Steven jay schneider

Based on The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the turn-of-the-century children’s novel by L. Frank Baum, this evergreen classic is one of the great film fairy tales, also a first-rate musical and the vehicle that turned Judy Garland from a talented child performer into a lasting and iconic movie star. Not hugely profitable on its first release, perhaps because it was such an expensive production, The Wizard of Oz has become beloved by successive generations. Like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), its popularity was boosted in the 1950s by annual Christmas television screenings, which established it as among the most beloved of all movies.

Along with her little dog Toto, Garland’s Dorothy Gale (breasts strapped down to make her seem younger) is whisked out of a sepia Kansas by a tornado and dumped in the ravishing Technicolor Land of Oz, where she squashes a witch under her house, is gifted by Glinda the Good (Billie Burke) with the dead hag’s magic ruby slippers, and takes off down the Yellow Brick Road to the Emerald City in order to find her way back to the farm from which she once wished she could escape. The “no place like home” theme, a screenwriter’s convenience to keep all the characters focused on their quests, has always seemed like a slight cop-out (why would anyone want to leave the wonders of Oz and go back to Kansas?). It never quite squares with the spoilsport interpretation of the whole film as a delirious dream in which Dorothy has recast everyone she knows as her Land of Oz friends and enemies.

The film has many splendors: a superb Harold Arlen–E.Y. Harburg score (ranging from the wistful “Over the Rainbow” through the infectious jollity of “Off to See the Wizard” and “Ding-Dong, the Witch Is Dead” to the classic comedy of “If I Only Had a Brain”), incredible MGM set design, hundreds of squeaky Munchkins and flying monkeys, the “horse of a different color” gag, and perfect performances all round. There are also a number of unforgettable stand-out moments: Ray Bolger’s Scarecrow being dismembered while Jack Haley’s Tin Man laments, “Well, that’s you all over”; Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion trying to be threatening (“I’ll fight you with one paw tied behind my back”); Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton’s fate under a bucket of water (“I’m melting, I’m melting!”), Frank Morgan emerging from behind the curtain (“I’m a very good man, it’s just that I’m a very bad wizard”).

Like its 1939 MGM stablemate Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz bears a director’s credit for solid pro Victor Fleming but is actually a triumph of the producer’s art, with Mervyn LeRoy pulling together all the diverse elements of a hardly smooth shoot. Buddy Ebsen was cast as the Scarecrow then switched to playing the Tin Man until he turned out to be allergic to the makeup; a whole “Jitterbug” number was dropped and hidden until it showed up in That’s Entertainment! (1974); and the midgets cast as the Munchkins reputedly ran riot. Best line: “Hearts will never be practical until they can be made unbreakable.” KN

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1930s




DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939)

U.S. (Universal) 94m BW

Director: George Marshall

Producer: Islin Auster, Joe Pasternak

Screenplay: Felix Jackson, from novel by Max Brand

Photography: Hal Mohr

Music: Frederick Hollander, Frank Skinner, Ralph Freed

Cast: Marlene Dietrich, James Stewart, Mischa Auer, Charles Winninger, Brian Donlevy, Allen Jenkins, Warren Hymer, Irene Hervey, Una Merkel, Billy Gilbert, Samuel S. Hinds, Jack Carson, Tom Fadden, Virginia Brissac, Edmund MacDonald

Steven jay schneider

Like most comedy Westerns, George Marshall’s Destry Rides Again is a satire on the conventions of manly heroism. Destry (played by James Stewart in his best “aw, shucks” manner), sheriff of the unruly town of Bottleneck, prefers milk to whiskey and refuses to carry a gun. This gives him a special appeal for saloon girl Frenchy, with Marlene Dietrich belatedly reprising the role that made her famous in The Blue Angel. Dietrich sings a couple of rousing numbers in the Last Chance Saloon, including the celebrated “See What the Boys in the Back Room Will Have.” In another reversal of stereotype, the usual “fight in the saloon” scene takes place between two women, as Frenchy and Lily Belle (Una Merkel) engage in an unladylike wrestling match.

Frenchy transfers her affections from gambler Kent (Brian Donlevy) to Destry, then leads the women of the town in a final rout of the bad guys, before throwing herself in front of Destry to take a bullet meant to kill him. It’s an amusing tale handled with a deft touch, very different in spirit from the original novel by Max Brand, the most prolific of all Western fiction writers, which was first filmed in 1932 with Tom Mix in the title role, and then again in 1954 with Audie Murphy. EB

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1930s




ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939)

U.S. (Columbia) 121m BW

Director: Howard Hawks

Producer: Howard Hawks

Screenplay: Jules Furthman, Howard Hawks

Photography: Joseph Walker

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin, Manuel Álvarez Maciste

Cast: Cary Grant, Jean Arthur, Richard Barthelmess, Rita Hayworth, Thomas Mitchell, Allyn Joslyn, Sig Ruman, Victor Kilian, John Carroll, Don “Red” Barry, Noah Beery Jr., Manuel Maciste, Milisa Sierra, Lucio Villegas, Pat Flaherty

Oscar nominations: Joseph Walker (photography), Roy Davidson, Roy Davidson (special visual effects), Edwin C. Hahn (special sound effects)

Steven jay schneider

Though Howard Hawks turned his attention to the manly cameraderie of dangerous professions (especially aviation) in such early 1930s action pictures as The Dawn Patrol, The Crowd Roars, and Ceiling Zero, this 1939 drama marks a transformation of his style, imprinting a personal stamp on a melodramatic genre to set the heroic-comic-romantic tone he would later pursue in To Have and Have Not, Rio Bravo, and El Dorado—note the community sing-alongs, the in-group banter, the shared domestic chores, the nicknames and gossip, the wryly amusing streak of prissiness among tough guys, and the veneer of cynicism that masks honest sentiment.

There are remarkable, exciting, stunt-heavy flying sequences in Only Angels Have Wings, especially a very dangerous landing and takeoff on a high Andean plateau, but the meat of the film is on the ground, observing the cohesion of a disparate group who cluster around white-hat hero Geoff Carter (Cary Grant). Striding a head taller than his crew and looking every inch the star, Geoff runs an airmail service in South America, inspiring a group of traumatized veterans, fresh kids, and deadbeats to hop over the Andes in outmoded airplanes. Showgirl Bonnie Lee (Jean Arthur) is stranded at the airfield: at first appalled by the ostensibly macho attitudes of the pilots when one of their number is killed in a needless accident, she gradually comes to understand their sensitive side, eventually joining Geoff in a spirited rendition of “The Peanut Vendor.”

At heart a tough soap opera, the film has a group of “damaged” people showing their worth in crises and cuts between funny, sassy, sexy dialogue exchanges on the ground and still-effective aerial action scenes. It also has a great supporting cast of familiar faces—Richard Barthelmess (trying to live down a reputation for cowardice because he bailed out of a crashing plane and left his engineer behind), Thomas Mitchell (an aging sidekick covering up his increasing blindness), Noah Beery Jr., Sig Rumann, and Rita Hayworth (as the sort of woman men shouldn’t mess with but usually do). Catchphrases include “Calling Barranca” and “Who’s Joe?” KN

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1930s




GONE WITH THE WIND (1939)

U.S. (Selznick) 222m Technicolor

Director: Victor Fleming, George Cukor

Producer: David O. Selznick

Screenplay: Sidney Howard, from novel by Margaret Mitchell

Photography: Ernest Haller, Ray Rennahan, Lee Garmes

Music: Max Steiner

Cast: Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Olivia de Havilland, Thomas Mitchell, Barbara O’Neil, Evelyn Keyes, Ann Rutherford, George Reeves, Fred Crane, Hattie McDaniel, Oscar Polk, Butterfly McQueen, Victor Jory, Everett Brown

Oscars: William Cameron Menzies (honorary award—use of color), David O. Selznick (best picture), Victor Fleming (director), Sidney Howard (screenplay), Vivien Leigh (actress), Hattie McDaniel (actress in support role), Lyle R. Wheeler (art direction), Ernest Haller Ray Rennahan (photography), Hal C. Kern, James E. Newcom (editing), Don Musgrave (technical achievement award)

Oscar nominations: Clark Gable (actor), Olivia de Havilland (actress in support role), Max Steiner (music), Thomas T. Moulton (sound), Jack Cosgrove, Fred Albin, Arthur Johns (special effects)

Steven jay schneider

Margaret Mitchell’s Civil War bestseller was snapped up by megalomaniac producer David O. Selznick, who resisted Mitchell’s suggestion that he cast Basil Rathbone as Rhett Butler in favor of the fans’ only choice, Clark Gable. After a nationwide talent search and a Hollywood catfight involving every potential leading lady in town, Selznick hired British Vivien Leigh to play Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara. Insistent from the first that every detail be sumptuous, Selznick then wore out at least three directors (Sam Wood, George Cukor, and Victor Fleming), set fire to the surviving King Kong sets to stage the burning of Atlanta, hired enough extras to refight the Civil War, and sat back to watch the Oscars and acclaim roll in.

Conceived from the outset as the ultimate Hollywood movie, Gone with the Wind became the benchmark for popular epic cinema for decades to come. Though the film is monumental enough to be beyond criticism, most of its really great scenes come in the first half, which was substantially directed by Cukor, who brought his skilled touch with character and nuance to the material with a great epic sweep. Fleming, meanwhile, best known for directing macho action, somehow wound up handling the soapier stretches as the leads’ marriage falters through postbellum ups and downs far less compelling than the war-torn cross-purposes romance that got them together.

The motor of the plot is the vacillating heart of Scarlett, whom Leigh plays first as flighty then flinty: she is so infatuated with gentlemanly Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) that she marries several lesser (and doomed) milksops when he opts for the more conventionally feminine (and doomed) Melanie (Olivia de Havilland). Rhett Butler, a pragmatist rather than an idealist, enters the picture and she is drawn to him as the war overturns the Southern way of life, marrying him after she has sworn never to go hungry again and to do anything it takes to keep Tara, her father’s plantation, going despite the depradations of Yankees and carpetbaggers. Only when Rhett rejects her does she realize she truly loves him, prompting the classic have-it-both-ways ending in which he walks out (“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”) and she swears to win him back (“Tomorrow is another day”).

Like The Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone with the Wind tidies up a lot of complex history, showing only happy devoted slaves and depicting Ashley’s postwar involvement in a hooded Klan organization as a genuinely heroic (if doomed) endeavor. But the sweep of the movie is near irresistible, and Selznick’s set pieces are among the most emblematic in cinema history: the pullback from Scarlett as she walks among the wounded to fill the screen with injured soldiers in gray, the dash through the blazes as Atlanta burns, and Rhett carrying Scarlett upstairs into sexual shadows. Dressed up with gorgeous 1939 Technicolor, pastel-pretty for the dresses and blazing red for the passions, and a thunderous Max Steiner score, Gone with the Wind still has a fair claim to be considered the last word in Hollywood filmmaking. KN

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1930s




LE JOUR SE LÈVE (1939)

DAYBREAK

France (Sigma, Vauban) 93m BW

Language: French

Director: Marcel Carné

Screenplay: Jacques Prévert, Jacques Viot

Photography: Philippe Agostini, André Bac, Albert Viguier, Curt Courant

Music: Maurice Jaubert

Cast: Jean Gabin, Jules Berry, Arletty, Mady Berry, René Génin, Arthur Devère, René Bergeron, Bernard Blier, Marcel Pérès, Germaine Lix, Gabrielle Fontan, Jacques Baumer, Jacqueline Laurent

Venice Film Festival: Marcel Carné (Mussolini Cup—best film nomination)

Steven jay schneider

Although it was not the first film to use dissolves to signal flashbacks, Marcel Carné’s Daybreak was deemed so innovative in 1939 that the producers insisted on a pretitle card to dispel any confusion: “A man has committed murder. Locked, trapped in a room, he recalls how he became a murderer.”

The murderer is François (Jean Gabin), a common factory worker who has been lured into murder by the victim, an amoral and manipulative vaudeville entertainer by the name of Valentin (Jules Berry). Their fate is bound up with two women: the earthy, sensual Clara (Arletty), who leaves Valentin to take up with François, and the pure, idealized Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent), whom François loves, but who has been corrupted by her association with the other man.

Among the remarkable series of classic films to spring from the collaboration between Carné and screenwriter Jacques Prévert (the others include Port of Shadows [1938], The Devil’s Envoys [1942], and, preeminently, Children of Paradise [1945]), Daybreak is arguably the most influential. Certainly it rehearses themes the team would return to in Children of Paradise. Although Daybreak wears its allegorical themes lightly, François clearly stands for the French working man, and the film gives voice to the despair that overtook the supporters of the Popular Front in the late 1930s as the state swept aside progressive socialist reforms and the specter of fascism loomed. When one friend yells from the crowd gathered outside his building that there’s still hope, François retorts “It’s over, there isn’t a François anymore. . . . There isn’t anything anymore.”

The film’s doom-laden sense of existential alienation and austere, claustrophobic atmosphere clearly anticipated the mood and form of American film noir. In fact, RKO remade the film with Henry Fonda and Vincent Price as The Long Night in 1946 (the studio attempted to destroy all prints of the original, but mercifully failed, and it’s The Long Night that has virtually disappeared from view). Similarly, Gabin’s rough-hewn romantic predates American counterparts like John Garfield and Humphrey Bogart as an iconic working-class hero. Daybreak stands as probably the masterpiece of French poetic realism. TCh

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1930s




GUNGA DIN (1939)

U.S. (RKO) 117m BW

Director: George Stevens

Producer: George Stevens

Screenplay: Ben Hecht, from poem by Rudyard Kipling

Photography: Joseph H. August

Music: Alfred Newman

Cast: Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Sam Jaffe, Eduardo Ciannelli, Joan Fontaine, Montagu Love, Robert Coote, Abner Biberman, Lumsden Hare

Oscar nomination: Joseph H. August (photography)

Classic Hollywood’s purest adventure story, Gunga Din, derives, strangely enough, from a Rudyard Kipling poem, which furnished writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur with only atmosphere and the minor character of its title.

The most famous entry in a series of 1930s productions that praise British shouldering of the white man’s burden, Gunga Din tells the story of three professional soldiers (Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen) in the “Imperial Lancers.” At first the trio seem about to break up, with one man on the verge of marriage—a fate worse than death in this world of exclusive male values. Fortunately, a terrible threat to the community soon arises in the form of a fanatic sect of ritual murderers, the Thuggees. Two set-piece battles follow, expertly staged by Stevens. At the film’s climax, the three sergeants are locked in a standoff with the Thuggees, whose evil leader has used them to lure the regiment into a trap. But Gunga Din (Sam Jaffe) rises as if from the dead to sound his bugle and warn the troop, who then slaughter the fanatics. The trio are reunited with their regiment to celebrate the heroism of their fallen companion.

Made on what was a huge budget for the time, Gunga Din is a spectacular visual treat, one of the most impressive action films ever made—the buddy film to end all buddy films. RBP

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1930s




NINOTCHKA (1939)

U.S. (Loew’s, MGM) 110m BW

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Producer: Ernst Lubitsch

Screenplay: Melchior Lengyel, Charles Brackett

Photography: William H. Daniels

Music: Werner R. Heymann

Cast: Greta Garbo, Melvyn Douglas, Ina Claire, Bela Lugosi, Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart, Alexander Granach, Gregory Gaye, Rolfe Sedan, Edwin Maxwell, Richard Carle

Oscar nominations: Sidney Franklin (best picture), Melchior Lengyel, Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, Billy Wilder (screenplay), Greta Garbo (actress)

Ernst Lubitsch’s most charming and humorous comedy of European manners features Greta Garbo in a rare comic role. Set in Paris during the 1920s, Ninotchka’s plot revolves around the attempt of the Soviet government to recover priceless jewels from the exiled Grand Duchess Swana (Ina Claire). Three bumbling bureaucrats fail at this mission and find themselves seduced by the luxuries and freedoms of Western society. So it is up to Ninotchka (Garbo) to regain the treasure by dealing with the lover of the Grand Duchess, the smooth and handsome Leon (Melvyn Douglas).

In the end, Ninotchka is able to get the jewels only by returning to Moscow and breaking with Leon, who soon follows her to Russia. Though they are in love, she refuses to betray her country, and Leon must use subterfuge to have her travel to Istanbul, where he meets her and they decide to marry. The film’s political themes are hardly serious but serve as the background for one comic shtick after another, most memorably perhaps Ninotchka’s attempt—in a fancy Paris nightclub—to get the ladies room attendants to go on strike. Douglas is perfect as the enamored and self-indulgent Leon, but this is Garbo’s picture and her last great screen role. RBP

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1930s




LA RÈGLE DU JEU (1939)

THE RULES OF THE GAME

France (Les Nouvelles Editions Françaises) 110m BW

Language: French

Director: Jean Renoir

Producer: Claude Renoir

Screenplay: Carl Koch, Jean Renoir

Photography: Jean-Paul Alphen, Jean Bachelet, Jacques Lemare, Alain Renoir

Music: Roger Désormières

Cast: Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost, Mila Parély, Odette Talazac, Claire Gérard, Anne Mayen, Lise Elina, Marcel Dalio, Julien Carette, Roland Toutain, Gaston Modot, Jean Renoir, Pierre Magnier, Eddy Debray, Pierre Nay

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After the great success of The Grand Illusion (1937) and La Bête Humaine (1938), Jean Renoir, together with his brother Claude and three friends, founded his own production company, Les Nouvelles Editions Françaises. The NEF’s first announced project was an adaptation and updating of Pierre de Marivaux’s Les Caprices de Marianne; asked to describe what his film would be like, Renoir answered, “An exact description of the bourgeoisie of our time.” This is the film that was eventually titled The Rules of the Game.

After completing a transatlantic flight in record time, aviator André Jurieux (Roland Toutain) announces over the radio his disappointment that a certain someone isn’t at the airport to greet him. That “someone” is Christine (Nora Gregor), an Austrian married to mechanical bird collector Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio). Octave (played by Renoir himself), friend and confidant of both André and Christine, convinces Robert to invite André out to a hunting party at his lavish estate La Colinière as a way of saving face; for his part, Robert hopes having André around might distract Christine while he settles accounts with his longtime mistress Geneviève (Mila Parély). That is what’s happening among the “masters.” Turning to the “servants,” there’s Lisette (Paulette Dubost), maid to Christine and married to Schumacher (Gaston Modot), groundskeeper at La Colinière, who catches the eye of Marceau (Julien Carette), a poacher who gets hired by Robert as a house servant. Renoir’s screenplay brings the various amorous adventures of the masters and servants together, heading finally to the “accidental” shooting of André, sacrificed so that a corrupt social order can remain intact.

A cinematic style favoring deep spaces and a highly mobile camera here reaches its perfection, as Renoir underlines the theatrical atmosphere that dominates both onstage and off. Most of the performances are flawless: Dalio as Robert, Carette as Marceau, Dubost as Lisette, and Modot as Schumacher. Reviewers over the years have quibbled over Gregor’s performance as Christine, wondering why so many men in the film are smitten with her—but perhaps that’s precisely the point. Boldly, Renoir cast himself as Octave, a devastating portrait of a man who fills in the emptiness of his own life by serving as the intermediary for the affairs of others.

A commercial disaster when first released in the summer of 1939, The Rules of the Game was cut and recut but to no avail; soon after the war began that fall it was banned as a danger to public morale. In the late 1940s and 1950s, the film’s legend was kept alive by André Bazin and his disciples at Cahiers du Cinéma, who claimed that alongside Citizen Kane (1941), Rules had been the harbinger of modern cinema, yet it was known only in a radically shortened version (88 minutes). In 1956, it was reconstructed to almost its complete original length (113 minutes, but it’s still missing one scene), presented at the Venice Film Festival in 1959, and the rest is film history, with The Rules of the Game finally celebrated internationally as the masterpiece it is. RP

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1930s




WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939)

U.S. (Samuel Goldwyn) 103m BW

Director: William Wyler

Producer: Samuel Goldwyn

Screenplay: Charles MacArthur, from novel by Emily Brontë

Photography: Gregg Toland

Music: Alfred Newman

Cast: Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, David Niven, Flora Robson, Donald Crisp, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Hugh Williams, Leo G. Carroll, Miles Mander, Cecil Kellaway, Cecil Humphreys, Sarita Wooton, Rex Downing, Douglas Scott

Oscar: Gregg Toland (photography)

Oscar nominations: Samuel Goldwyn (best picture), William Wyler (director), Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur (screenplay), Laurence Olivier (actor), Geraldine Fitzgerald (actress in support role), Alfred Newman (music), James Basevi (art direction)

William Wyler’s film version of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights is unsurpassed as a gothic tale of inextinguishable passion, thwarted by social circumstance and mischance. A lonely traveler, Dr. Kenneth (Donald Crisp), making his way across the moors of northern England, spends the night at Wuthering Heights, where an aged servant tells him the tragic story of Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier), the house’s current owner. A gypsy waif, he had been adopted by the Earnshaws and raised with their own two children. Heathcliff is the constant companion of young Cathy (Merle Oberon), whose snobbish brother Hindley (Hugh Williams) scorns him. Wealthy neighbor Edgar Linton (David Niven) falls in love with Cathy, and she dismisses Heathcliff, who goes to America. Cathy forgets him and ends up marrying Edgar. Heathcliff returns to England a rich man but, furious at Cathy’s betrayal, marries Edgar’s sister (Geraldine Fitzgerald), mistreating the poor woman as a means of getting revenge. Cathy is miserable with Edgar and falls ill, but before she dies the former lovers are briefly united.

Heathcliff’s speech about the life they will live together is one of the most poignant moments in any Hollywood film. It is the acting of Olivier and Oberon as the doomed lovers, framed against the forbidding wildness of the studio-crafted moors, that makes the film most memorable. RBP

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1940s


Contents

His Girl Friday (1940)

Rebecca (1940)

Fantasia (1940)

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

Dance, Girl, Dance (1940)

Pinocchio (1940)

The Mortal Storm (1940)

The Bank Dick (1940)

Citizen Kane (1941)

The Lady Eve (1941)

The Wolf Man (1941)

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Sergeant York (1941)

Dumbo (1941)

High Sierra (1941)

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

How Green Was My Valley (1941)

The Palm Beach Story (1942)

Now, Voyager (1942)

Casablanca (1942)

To be or Not to be (1942)

Cat People (1942)

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Meshes of The Afternoon (1943)

Fires Were Started (1943)

The Man In Grey (1943)

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

I Walked with a Zombie (1943)

The Seventh Victim (1943)

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Ossessione (1943)

Meet Me In St. Louis (1944)

To Have and Have Not (1944)

Laura (1944)

Gaslight (1944)

Henry V (1944)

Ivan The Terrible, Parts One and Two (1944)

Double Indemnity (1944)

Murder, My Sweet (1944)

The Battle of San Pietro (1945)

Spellbound (1945)

Mildred Pierce (1945)

Les Enfants Du Paradis (1945)

Roma, Città Aperta (1945)

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Detour (1945)

I Know Where I’m Going! (1945)

Brief Encounter (1945)

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

Paisà (1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

My Darling Clementine (1946)

The Stranger (1946)

La Belle Et La Bête (1946)

The Big Sleep (1946)

The Killers (1946)

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Great Expectations (1946)

Notorious (1946)

Black Narcissus (1946)

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

Gilda (1946)

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

Out of The Past (1947)

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)

Odd Man Out (1947)

Ladri Di Biciclette (1948)

Letter from An Unknown Woman (1948)

Secret Beyond The Door (1948)

Force of Evil (1948)

Xiao Cheng Zhi Chun (1948)

Red River (1948)

Rope (1948)

The Snake Pit (1948)

The Lady from Shanghai (1948)

The Paleface (1948)

The Red Shoes (1948)

The Treasure of The Sierra Madre (1948)

Louisiana Story (1948)

The Heiress (1949)

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Gun Crazy (1949)

Adam’s Rib (1949)

Whisky Galore! (1949)

White Heat (1949)

The Reckless Moment (1949)

The Third Man (1949)

On The Town (1949)


1940s




HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)

U.S. (Columbia) 92m BW

Director: Howard Hawks

Producer: Howard Hawks

Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur

Photography: Joseph Walker

Music: Sidney Cutner, Felix Mills

Cast: Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, Ralph Bellamy, Gene Lockhart, Porter Hall, Ernest Truex, Cliff Edwards, Clarence Kolb, Roscoe Karns, Frank Jenks, Regis Toomey, Abner Biberman, Frank Orth, Helen Mack, John Qualen

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s classic newspaper play The Front Page had been filmed successfully before and would be again after this sparkling 1939 version, scripted by Hecht and Charles Lederer. But astute and witty director Howard Hawks delights in the simple twist that was a stroke of genius—turning ace reporter Hildy Johnson into a woman. Voilà, His Girl Friday became the fastest-talking battle of the sexes in the history of romantic screwball comedy.

Scintillating Rosalind Russell is the wisecracking star reporter her editor and ex-husband (Cary Grant as the unscrupulous and aggressively charming Walter Burns) can’t lose in the middle of a hot murder story. When she announces that she’s quitting to marry a meek square (Ralph Bellamy), Walter’s incredulity and dismay launch him into conniving overdrive. As wily Walter calculates, Hildy can’t resist a last big story and is shortly up to her absurd hat in a jailhouse break and corruption exposé. Grant and Russell engage in dizzying verbal play of machine-gun speed in a plot that reaches farcical heights, with a great character ensemble of gum-chewing, smoke-wreathed, poker-playing hacks acting as their cynical chorus. Theatrical and stylish, His Girl Friday is unrivaled for comic timing and snappy repartee. AE

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1940s




REBECCA (1940)

U.S. (Selznick) 130m BW

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Producer: David O. Selznick

Screenplay: Philip MacDonald, from novel by Daphne Du Maurier

Photography: George Barnes

Music: Franz Waxman

Cast: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Judith Anderson, Gladys Cooper, Nigel Bruce, Reginald Denny, C. Aubrey Smith, Melville Cooper, Florence Bates, Leonard Carey, Leo G. Carroll, Edward Fielding, Lumsden Hare, Forrester Harvey

Oscars: David O. Selznick (best picture), George Barnes (photography)

Oscar nominations: Alfred Hitchcock (director), Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison (screenplay), Laurence Olivier (actor), Joan Fontaine (actress), Judith Anderson (actress in support role), Lyle R. Wheeler (art direction), Hal C. Kern (editing), Jack Cosgrove, Arthur Johns (special effects), Franz Waxman (music)

Steven jay schneider

It is somewhat surprising that despite Alfred Hitchcock’s long, fruitful career, and despite several subsequent nominations, only Rebecca, his first American film, earned him an Academy Award for Best Picture. Then again, that may say more about the persuasive power of producer David O. Selznick. Hot from the success of the 1939 film Gone with the Wind, Selznick seized the opportunity to work with Hitchcock, pairing the director with Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic ghost story.

Working with a big budget, Hitchcock transformed the Manderley mansion into a character unto itself—later the inspiration for the imposing Xanadu in Citizen Kane. The palatial seaside estate is the atmospheric setting for the strained romance between Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. He’s a wealthy widower wooing the innocent Fontaine, and she never questions her good fortune in finding such a loving man. They marry after a whirlwind romance, but as their relationship deepens, Fontaine is haunted more and more by the spirit of his dead wife—Rebecca. Is the haunting merely a figment of her imagination, or the fruits of paranoia, or is a more nefarious force at work? And what, if anything, does the suspicious servant Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson), who always seems to be hovering near the nerve-wracked Fontaine, have to do with the strange goings-on?

Rebecca marked Hitchcock’s auspicious arrival in America. In fact, at the Oscars the film ironically beat out Hitchcock’s final British picture, Foreign Correspondent. All his artistic traits were used to full effect: there’s the murky, mysterious earlier history, the barely contained suspicions, the fairy-tale romance doomed by the encroaching past, and, of course, the looming specter of foul play. Rebecca does lack some of Hitchcock’s trademark playfulness, and the sense of humor is missed; the absence of levity is due in no small part to the unremittingly gloomy, gothic nature of Du Maurier’s melodramatic novel. Innocent Fontaine is nearly driven to madness by the lingering secrets of Manderley, but Hitchcock is more than happy to let the tension build and build toward the haunting conclusion. JKl

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1940s




FANTASIA (1940)

U.S. (Walt Disney) 120m Technicolor

Director: Ben Sharpsteen (supervisor)

Producer: Walt Disney, Ben Sharpsteen

Screenplay: Joe Grant, Dick Huemer

Photography: James Wong Howe, Maxwell Morgan

Music: Bach, Beethoven, Dukas, Mussorgsky, Schubert, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky

Cast: Leopold Stokowski (conductor, the Philadelphia Orchestra), Deems Taylor (narrator), Julietta Novis (soloist)

Oscars: Walt Disney, William E. Garity, J.N.A. Hawkins (honorary award), Leopold Stokowski and associates (honorary award)

Although now commonplace, creating images to interpret music was revolutionary when this audacious milestone in animation and stereophonic audio recording was conceived and executed by the Walt Disney studio to universal acclaim and astonishment. Graced by the eminent symphonic star Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, Fantasia’s eight wide-ranging sequences comprise a concert with ambitious, amusing, portentous, and experimental cartoons accompanying pieces by Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Schubert, and others.

Even on IMAX screens, the exhibition scene of choice for the most recent of Disney’s several anniversary restorations, rerecordings, and rereleases of their prized 1940 animation landmark (revamped with reasonable success with five new segments in their updated production Fantasia 2000), can be disappointing because it is still a remorselessly kitsch experience, however impressive and groundbreaking an achievement. Baby boomers who enjoyed it on hallucinogenics in their youths are probably the audience fondest of it now. But there are some magical sequences that endure, as befits a film made by sixty animators working under no less than eleven directors (under the supervision of Ben Sharpsteen).

Most watchable are the abstractions ahead of their time to Bach, in which the multichannel sound is perfectly synchronized to the drawings and seems to soar out of the screen. Mickey Mouse, never more delightful than as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice desperately trying to halt the self-replicating brooms he has conjured up to do his chores, the dancing Chinese mushrooms, a darling chorus line of eyelash-batting pachyderms, the hippos in ballet tutus cavorting daintily and fleeing caped alligators to “The Dance of the Hours”–all still a hoot. Together these make for a sweet hour of greatness. In between are sequences that have not aged as well. The capering fairies who are nude but tastefully free from sexual organs, the seemingly interminable decline of the dinosaurs to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and the vulgar absurdity to which Beethoven’s Pastorale has been subjected (centaurs flirtatiously pursuing coy, suspiciously pubescent-looking centaurettes who are uniformly coiffed in the style of Joan Crawford) all take some beating for incredulity value. AE

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1940s




THE PHILADELPHIA STORY (1940)

U.S. (MGM) 112m BW

Director: George Cukor

Producer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Screenplay: Donald Ogden Stewart, from play by Philip Barry

Photography: Joseph Ruttenberg

Music: Franz Waxman

Cast: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, James Stewart, Ruth Hussey, John Howard, Roland Young, John Halliday, Mary Nash, Virginia Weidler, Henry Daniell, Lionel Pape, Rex Evans

Oscars: Donald Ogden Stewart (screenplay), James Stewart (actor)

Oscar nominations: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (best picture), George Cukor (director), Katharine Hepburn (actress), Ruth Hussey (actress in support role)

Steven jay schneider

George Cukor’s 1940 adaptation of Philip Barry’s theatrical farce is the uncontested classic of all sophisticated slapstick comedies. Katharine Hepburn had starred in the play on Broadway and it is said that playwright Phillip Barry based the leading female character on her reputation at the time. Having left RKO on less than ideal terms, the public saw Hepburn as bossy and unfeminine, certainly not the womanly ideal for the late 1930s.

In the opening scene, now famous for its virtually dialogue-free fury, heiress Tracy Lord (Hepburn) watches her recently divorced playboy husband Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) put a few of his belongings in the car, snapping a golf club over her thigh in anger. Trying to prove that she is not impossible to love, Tracy plans to marry a respectable if colorless man at the family mansion when Dexter returns with two reporters in tow, Mike Connor (James Stewart) and Liz Imbrie (Ruth Hussey), specifically to ruin the wedding. Never more luminous, Hepburn outdoes herself in a role which demands impeccable comic timing as well as true vulnerability. Her scenes with Stewart in the garden the night before her fateful wedding capture the essence of impetuous attraction.

Hepburn was responsible for the making of The Philadelphia Story as it stands. She owned the rights to the project, which she then wisely sold to MGM on condition that she recap her leading role as well as choose the director and cast. She wanted Clark Gable as Dexter and Spencer Tracy as Mike, but because of scheduling clashes neither were available. Instead Grant, her on-screen partner on three previous occasions, and Stewart were cast. Director George Cukor managed to make Hepburn’s negative public image work for her through her character, eliciting feelings of sorrow for a beautiful woman so misunderstood. The film was an enormous success, with an award-winning screenplay that matched comedy with social commentary. In 1956, the play, with additional musical numbers, was remade into High Society. KK

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1940s




THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940)

U.S. (Fox) 128m BW

Director: John Ford

Producer: Nunnally Johnson, Darryl F. Zanuck

Screenplay: Nunnally Johnson, from novel by John Steinbeck

Photography: Gregg Toland

Cast: Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, John Carradine, Charley Grapewin, Dorris Bowdon, Russell Simpson, O.Z. Whitehead, John Qualen, Eddie Quillan, Zeffie Tilbury, Frank Sully, Frank Darien, Darryl Hickman, Shirley Mills, Roger Imhof

Oscars: John Ford (director), Jane Darwell (actress in support role)

Oscar nominations: Darryl F. Zanuck, Nunnally Johnson (best picture), Nunnally Johnson (screenplay), Henry Fonda (actor), Robert L. Simpson (editing), Edmund H. Hansen (sound)

Steven jay schneider

Few American pictures in the 1930s got to grips with the suffering and dislocation of the Great Depression. Hollywood largely left it to other media such as the theater, novels, and photography to document the national disaster. John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath, first published in 1939, was based on solid research, following dispossessed farming families from Oklahoma as they journeyed to the orchards of California in search of casual labor.

Despite objections from the conservative financiers who controlled the studio, Darryl Zanuck bought the book for 20th Century Fox. He knew that John Ford was the right man to direct it, with his feeling for the American people and their history. Ford also identified what was most heartbreaking about the plight of the Joad family—not their acute poverty, but the psychological trauma of being uprooted from their home, of being cast out on the road, rootless. In a memorable scene Ma Joad (Jane Darwell) burns the possessions she can’t take with her the night before they must abandon their farm.

For his hero, Tom Joad, Ford cast Henry Fonda, who had just appeared in Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), two other pieces of Americana. Members of the unofficial John Ford Stock Company to appear included Russell Simpson as Pa Joad, John Qualen as their friend Muley, and John Carradine as an itinerant preacher. And for his cameraman Ford made an inspired choice. Gregg Toland captured brilliantly the documentary look of the pictures that had been taken of the dustbowl tragedy by government-employed photographers such as Dorothea Lange. Nowhere is this better seen than in a sequence where the Joads drive into a squatters camp, the camera dwelling on the grim faces of the occupants and on the run-down shacks where they live.

Though The Grapes of Wrath does not shirk from showing the full enormity of its subjects’ plight, there is a significant departure from the novel. In Steinbeck’s book the Joads first find easier conditions in a government-run camp, but by the end are reduced to starvation wages. In the film, they find the government camp later on, thus making their progress an upward curve, marked by Ma’s final speech: “We’re the people. . . . We’ll go on forever.” EB

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1940s




DANCE, GIRL, DANCE (1940)

U.S. (RKO) 90m BW

Director: Dorothy Arzner

Producer: Harry E. Edington, Erich Pommer

Screenplay: Tess Slesinger, Frank Davis, from story by Vicki Baum

Photography: Russell Metty, Joseph H. August

Music: Chet Forrest, Edward Ward, Bob Wright

Cast: Maureen O’Hara, Louis Hayward, Lucille Ball, Virginia Field, Ralph Bellamy, Maria Ouspenskaya, Mary Carlisle, Katharine Alexander, Edward Brophy, Walter Abel, Harold Huber, Ernest Truex, Chester Clute, Lorraine Krueger, Lola Jensen

Those who are only familiar with Lucille Ball from her popular 1950s television series should examine her work here in Dorothy Arzner’s camp classic Dance, Girl, Dance. As “Bubbles”/“Tiger” Lily White, Ball all but steals the film from Maureen O’Hara’s dedicated ballet dancer who is forced into burlesque or starve.

Dance is the oft-told tale of life in the sordid world of burlesque as seen through the eyes of Judy O’Brian (O’Hara), an aspiring ballet dancer given hope by her mentor Madame Basilova (the always camp Maria Ouspenskaya), who unfortunately is run over by a truck before her protégée can reveal her talent. Bubbles offers Judy a spot in her burlesque act to appear as her stooge. Before long, Judy can take no more and in a fiery speech to her all-male audience she screams at them to “Go ahead and look, get your fifty cents’ worth!” Many have taken this to be Arzner’s feminist stance light years before it was fashionable. Nevertheless, it is Ball that Arzner gets the most fun out of, and no one will forget her when she does the hula or belts out the jitterbug bite.

If backstage cat fights and a bit of women-as-spectacle amuse you, then check out Dance, Girl, Dance. As Bubbles would say, “Listen kid, I don’t fall into gutters—I pick my spots.” Ironically, Ball would one day own the very studio that made this film: RKO. DDV

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1940s




PINOCCHIO (1940)

U.S. (Walt Disney) 88m Technicolor

Director: Hamilton Luske, Ben Sharpsteen

Producer: Walt Disney

Screenplay: Aurelius Battaglia, from novel by Carlo Collodi

Music: Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith, Ned Washington

Cast: (voices) Dickie Jones, Don Brodie, Walter Catlett, Frankie Darro, Cliff Edwards, Charles Judels, Christian Rub, Evelyn Venable

Oscars: Leigh Harline, Paul J. Smith, Ned Washington (best original score), Leigh Harline, Ned Washington (best original song)

Some of the darker elements of Carlo Collodi’s original Italian fable were, of course, discarded once Disney had the story. But only some. The lasting appeal of the animated Pinocchio shows that not all of the alterations the studio made to the story of a wooden puppet brought to life were necessarily for the worse, and several of the story’s most frightening details remain prominent. The classic still features plenty of horror as Pinocchio faces the perils of peer pressure that distract him from his goal of becoming a real boy. Guided (but not always led) by his insect “conscience” Jiminy Cricket, Pinocchio must learn not just responsibility but also courage and love during his innocently roguish quest for life.

As Disney’s second feature (after Snow White), Pinocchio showed the then-uncharted world of animation to be rife with possibility, resulting in such enchanting and ethereal creations as the luminous Blue Fairy, and such amazing sequences as the escape from cursed Pleasure Island and the thrilling encounter with the fittingly named Monstro the Whale. Add to these such now standard songs as “When You Wish Upon a Star,” and is it any wonder Pinocchio has remained a towering standard by which so many animated films are judged? JKl

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1940s




THE MORTAL STORM (1940)

U.S. (Loew’s, MGM) 100m BW

Director: Frank Borzage

Producer: Frank Borzage

Screenplay: George Froeschel, Hans Rameau, Claudine West, from novel by Phyllis Bottome

Photography: William H. Daniels

Music: Bronislau Kaper, Eugene Zador

Cast: Margaret Sullavan, James Stewart, Robert Young, Frank Morgan, Robert Stack, Bonita Granville, Irene Rich, William T. Orr, Maria Ouspenskaya, Gene Reynolds, Russell Hicks, William Edmunds, Esther Dale, Dan Dailey, Granville Bates

Steven jay schneider

One of the few anti-Nazi films Hollywood made before Pearl Harbor—detailed and passionate in its condemnation of Nazism—Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm opens on the day Adolf Hitler becomes Chancellor of Germany. The day also happens to be the sixtieth birthday of Professor Viktor Roth (Frank Morgan), a beloved science professor at a university in southern Germany. The film shows the consolidation of Nazi Germany through the destruction of the “non-Aryan” Roth and his family: his wife, his two Aryan stepsons, who become rabid Nazis, and his actual daughter, Freya (Margaret Sullavan).

Borzage portrays Nazism as a form of insanity, to which many men (only one woman as far as we see) succumb as if by contagion or by natural predisposition (the film makes no analysis of the socioeconomic roots of Nazism) but with which, in some individuals, a residual humanity comes into conflict. The magnificent final scene locates this conflict within the character played by Robert Stack. Alone in his stepfather’s house, he walks through its empty rooms. The camera tracks past him, exploring the shadowy space, the soundtrack filled with dialogue from earlier scenes; we hear the young man’s footsteps as he goes out of the house.

The Mortal Storm is one of American cinema’s great love stories. Borzage’s poignant and subtle handling of the relationship between Freya and Martin (James Stewart) is in keeping with the director’s career-long commitment to the transcendent power of love—an idealism to which the admirable performances of Sullavan and Stewart are uncompromisingly faithful. Just before the lovers’ trek to the mountainous pass across the Austrian border, Martin’s mother (Maria Ouspenskaya) has them celebrate their union by drinking from a ceremonial wine cup. This scene is one of the most luminous in all Borzage’s work.

Uncredited coproducer Victor Saville said he directed much of the film, a claim that has been widely repeated but contradicted by several key cast and crew members. There can be no doubt that The Mortal Storm is fully representative of the style, philosophy, and concerns of Frank Borzage. CFu

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1940s




THE BANK DICK (1940)

U.S. (Matty Fox, Universal) 74m BW

Director: Edward F. Cline

Producer: Jack J. Gross

Screenplay: W.C. Fields

Photography: Milton R. Krasner

Music: Charles Previn

Cast: W.C. Fields, Cora Witherspoon, Una Merkel, Evelyn Del Rio, Jessie Ralph, Franklin Pangborn, Shemp Howard, Dick Purcell, Grady Sutton, Russell Hicks, Pierre Watkin, Al Hill, George Moran, Bill Wolfe, Jack Norton

Steven jay schneider

The Bank Dick was written by W.C. Fields under the name “Mahatma Kane Jeeves,” which suggests something of his ambitions, and directed by amiable traffic cop Eddie Cline, whose job was to clear the way so Fields could cut loose with all his multiple idiosyncracies, As usual, the star is cast as a mild-mannered but resentful bumbler who wants only to be left in peace but is nagged by an unreasonable world into making the effort to respond to various impolite intruders into his happy doze.

Egbert Sousé, a put-upon bumbler who would like nothing more than to spend his life in bars getting quietly drunk, is constantly harassed into making something of himself by his frightful wife (Cora Witherspoon), ghastly mother-in-law (Jessie Relph), obnoxious teenage daughter (Una Merkel), her chinless boob fiancé (Grady Sutton), and his own bratty younger child. When he accidentally foils a bank robbery by blundering into the crook, he is given the job of uniformed security guard and allowed to cause trouble in a succession of absolutely perfect routines that pit him against snooty officials (Franklin Pangborn as a bank inspector driven to distraction), hard-bitten crooks (one would-be robber is dragged off on a hilarious road chase sequence on a par with any silent slapstick), and offensive customers.

Like all the best Fields films (It’s a Gift [1934], Never Give a Sucker an Even Break [1941]), the premise here is just an excuse for a succession of vaudeville-like sketches in which he is pitted against a partner too eccentric to be classed as a straight man but also too vicious to be a victim. Some of the routines in The Bank Dick, such as when Sousé somehow finds himself in the director’s chair while a movie is being shot, stray far afield from the bank. But the marbled, pompous halls of commerce and capital, with glad-handing moneybags who receive their comeuppance as Sousé somehow becomes rich and “reformed,” are an ideal setting for mischief and anarchy. Fields was a rare comedian who could be funny while strangling a small child, and this seventy-five-minute gem is among his masterpieces. KN

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1940s




CITIZEN KANE (1941)

U.S. (Mercury, RKO) 119m BW

Director: Orson Welles

Producer: Orson Welles, Richard Baer, George Schaefer

Screenplay: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles

Photography: Gregg Toland

Music: Bernard Herrmann, Charlie Barnet, Pepe Guízar

Cast: Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Dorothy Comingore, Agnes Moorehead, Ruth Warrick, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Everett Sloane, William Alland, Paul Stewart, George Coulouris, Fortunio Bonanova, Gus Schilling, Philip Van Zandt, Georgia Backus, Harry Shannon

Oscar: Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles (screenplay)

Oscar nominations: Orson Welles (best picture), Orson Welles (director), Orson Welles (actor), Perry Ferguson, Van Nest Polglase, A. Roland Fields, Darrell Silvera (art direction), Gregg Toland (photography), Robert Wise (editing), Bernard Herrmann (music), John Aalberg (sound)

Steven jay schneider

Since 1962, Sight & Sound magazine’s oft-cited critics’ poll of the greatest films ever made has placed Citizen Kane, Orson Welles’s remarkable debut film, at the top of the list. By 1998, the American Film Institute called it the greatest movie of all time. It also garnered Best Picture awards from the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Board of Review, and won an Oscar for its screenplay. The legend of Citizen Kane has partly been fueled by the fact that Welles was only twenty-four when he made the film, but also from the obvious comparisons between the titular character and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who moved heaven and earth to stop the picture from being made and then, when not stopped from being distributed, he tried to discredit it. But beyond the ridiculous hype of any single film being “the greatest movie of all time,” Citizen Kane is of tremendous interest and importance, for a number of reasons.

The film tells a great story: Charles Foster Kane (played brilliantly by Welles himself) is born poor, but strikes it rich through a gold mine bequeathed to his mother. As a young man he begins to assemble a populist newspaper and radio empire, eventually marrying the niece of an American president and running for governor. But any ambition he has for real power is stymied. As Kane becomes alienated from his power, he becomes increasingly abusive to the women in his life, first his wife, then his mistress. He dies, almost alone, in his reconstructed but unfinished castle, longing for the simplicity of his childhood. Firmly within the traditions of New Deal populism, Citizen Kane extols the very American perspective that money cannot buy happiness, but in a highly prosaic, almost Dickensian way.

More significantly, Citizen Kane begins with Kane’s death, and the enigmatic final word he utters: “Rosebud.” A group of intrepid newsreel reporters try to discover the meaning of this last word and interview several of Kane’s acquaintances. Not only is the film told in flashback, but each character only knows the man from a certain perspective, which is presented in due course. The film’s narrative complexity, without ever violating Classical Hollywood narrative continuity and causality, is a remarkable tour de force, responsible in large part for critic Pauline Kael’s accusation that the film’s true genius lay not in the hands of wunderkind Welles, but in those of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.

The film’s real power, though, lies in its cinematography: Gregg Toland developed a technique for deep-focus photography, wherein the extreme foreground, central middle-ground, and background were all in focus at the same time, allowing the eye to focus on any part of the image. This technique was criticized at the time for calling attention to itself, in direct violation of the codes of classical Hollywood cinematography, wherein good photography was assumed to be invisible. Even by today’s different standards, Citizen Kane’s cinematography is striking and unforgettable. MK

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1940s




THE LADY EVE (1941)

U.S. (Paramount) 97m BW

Director: Preston Sturges

Producer: Paul Jones

Screenplay: Monckton Hoffe, Preston Sturges

Photography: Victor Milner

Music: Clara Edwards, Sigmund Krumgold

Cast: Barbara Stanwyck, Henry Fonda, Charles Coburn, Eugene Pallette, William Demarest, Eric Blore, Melville Cooper, Martha O’Driscoll, Janet Beecher, Robert Greig, Dora Clement, Luis Alberni

Oscar nomination: Monckton Hoffe (screenplay)

Steven jay schneider

The Lady Eve is a classic screwball comedy and a quintessential Preston Sturges film, reflecting the writer-director’s view of romance as the greatest con game of all. The script abounds in superb lines, the dialogue is fast-paced and witty, and the plot offers a clever variation on the familiar battle-of-the-sexes motif.

The film begins on a cruise ship, where the resourceful and sophisticated temptress Jean Harrington (Barbara Stanwyck) tries to seduce the guileless snake-lover Charles “Hopsie” Pike (Henry Fonda) in order to con him out of his fortune built on “Pike’s Ale.” In a highly implausible but nevertheless delightful plot twist, the action then shifts to Hopsie’s Connecticut mansion where Jean reappears as an English heiress, Lady Eve Sidwich. She seduces Hopsie again, and makes him marry her with the intention of dumping him afterward as retribution for having deserted her earlier. In the end, however, her scheming backfires when she truly falls in love with him.

Despite the existing censorship restrictions, Sturges somehow manages to get away with quite a lot in The Lady Eve. Weaving in numerous references to the biblical story of the Fall, he emphasizes sexuality in a way that few filmmakers at the time would have even dared. The Lady Eve was remade in 1956 as (the considerably inferior) The Birds and the Bees, starring Mitzi Gaynor and David Niven. RDe

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1940s




THE WOLF MAN (1941)

U.S. (Universal) 70m BW

Director: George Waggner

Producer: Jack J. Gross, George Waggner

Screenplay: Curt Siodmak

Photography: Joseph A. Valentine

Music: Charles Previn, Hans J. Salter, Frank Skinner

Cast: Claude Rains, Warren William, Ralph Bellamy, Patric Knowles, Bela Lugosi, Maria Ouspenskaya, Evelyn Ankers, J.M. Kerrigan, Fay Helm, Lon Chaney Jr., Forrester Harvey

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The figure of the wolf man—that bipedal, cinematic version of the werewolf archetype, dramatically embodying the Jekyll/Hyde (superego/id) dichotomy present in us all—first took center stage in Universal’s Werewolf of London (1935), starring Henry Hull in a role reprised decades later by Jack Nicholson in Wolf (1994). Shortly thereafter, Curt Siodmak finished the screenplay for what was to be Universal Pictures’ latest horror classic—following Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), and The Mummy (1932)—The Wolf Man, directed by George Waggner. In what still remains the most recognizable and cherished version of the myth, Lon Chaney Jr. stars as Lawrence Talbot, an American-educated Welshman who wants nothing more than to be cured of his irrepressible (when the moon is full) lycanthropy.

Makeup king Jack Pierce devised an elaborate yak-hair costume for Chaney that would come to serve as the template for countless Halloween masks. What distinguishes Siodmark’s story from previous werewolf tales was the coded emphasis on repressed sexual energy as the motivating force behind Talbot’s full-moon transformations. As the gypsy woman Maleva (Maria Ouspenskaya) explains, “Even a man that is pure in heart, and says his prayers by night, may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.”

The success of Waggner’s picture led to four more Chaney-driven Wolf Man films in the 1940s alone. Dozens of imitators, updates, takeoffs, spoofs have since followed. SJS

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1940s




THE MALTESE FALCON (1941)

U.S. (First National, Warner Bros.) 101m BW

Director: John Huston

Producer: Henry Blanke, Hal B. Wallis

Screenplay: John Huston, from novel by Dashiell Hammett

Photography: Arthur Edeson

Music: Adolph Deutsch

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Barton MacLane, Lee Patrick, Sydney Greenstreet, Ward Bond, Jerome Cowan, Elisha Cook Jr., James Burke, Murray Alper, John Hamilton

Oscar nominations: Hal B. Wallis (best picture), John Huston (screenplay), Sydney Greenstreet (actor in supporting role)

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By 1941, Dashiell Hammett’s great private-eye novel had been acceptably filmed twice, under its own title in 1931 with Ricardo Cortez as Sam Spade and as Satan Met a Lady in 1935 with Warren William as the Spade character (and the falcon McGuffin turned into the Horn of Roland). John Huston, having served an apprenticeship as a writer, selected the book from Warner Brothers’ catalogue of properties and was so confident in the strength of his material that his script essentially consists of a transcription of Hammett’s dialogue. He was fortunate enough to have a letter-perfect cast down to the smallest bit parts, and the restraint not to go over the top. This debut feature has little of the razzle-dazzle of the same year’s Citizen Kane, announcing the arrival not of an enfant terrible but of a consummate professional.

Often considered a cornerstone of film noir, The Maltese Falcon is sparing in its use of symbolic shadows—which are withheld until the elevator door casts jail-bar shapes across the face of the duplicitous heroine at the end—and takes place almost entirely in anonymously tidy hotel rooms and offices worlds away from the seedy glamor of The Big Sleep (1946) or Murder, My Sweet (1944). Humphrey Bogart, graduating from bad-guy roles to tough romantic heroes, is San Francisco private eye Sam Spade. A sharp-suited businessman, he is out to bring in the murderer of his partner and thwart a group of treacherous adventurers who have become so caught up in the search for the fabulous jeweled bird of the title that they make the fatal mistake of assuming everyone is as corrupt and greedy as they are. Mary Astor might at first glance seem a little matronly for a femme fatale, but her strange primness in tight suits and tighter hairstyle is weirdly apt for a woman who always has a backup lie in place. Sydney Greenstreet’s talkative, obese, self-delighted Kaspar Gutman and Peter Lorre’s polite, sad, scented, whiny Joel Cairo are screen immortals, a Bing and Bob or Laurel and Hardy of crime, with perennial loser/fall guy Elisha Cook Jr. as the angry little gunman Wilmer who is doomed always to be on the outside of the deal.

Hammett’s reputation rests on his addition of a certain social realism to the American mystery story, with private eyes who are solid professionals rather than supersleuths. He was also addicted to plots as twisted and bizarre as Jacobean drama: The Maltese Falcon climaxes not only with the hysterical punchline that the black bird everyone has been scheming and killing to possess is actually a fraud, but also with the classic moment when the detective admits that he loves the murderess but is still going to let her get hauled off to jail. Whereas other great Hollywood directors pursue their own visions, Huston continued to be at his best—from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) through to The Asphalt Jungle (1950), Fat City (1972) Wise Blood (1979), and The Dead (1987)—when making faithful adaptations of minor classic novels. KN

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1940s




SERGEANT YORK (1941)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 134m BW

Director: Howard Hawks

Producer: Howard Hawks, Jesse L. Lasky, Hal B. Wallis

Screenplay: Harry Chandlee, Abem Finkel

Photography: Sol Polito

Music: Max Steiner

Cast: Gary Cooper, Walter Brennan, Joan Leslie, George Tobias, Stanley Ridges, Margaret Wycherly, Ward Bond, Noah Beery Jr., June Lockhart

Oscars: Gary Cooper (actor), William Holmes (editing)

Oscar nominations: Jesse L. Lasky, Hal B. Wallis (best picture), Howard Hawks (director), Harry Chandlee, Abem Finkel, John Huston, Howard Koch (screenplay), Walter Brennan (actor in support role), Margaret Wycherly (actress in support role), Sol Polito (photography), John Hughes, Fred M. MacLean (art direction), Max Steiner (music), Nathan Levinson (sound)

Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York celebrates the good fight of World War I just as the United States was preparing for World War II. A bellicose subtext is everywhere apparent, yet it is easily assimilated into the moral framework of the film’s eponymous lead.

Alvin York, as characterized by Gary Cooper, speaks with a down-home slang, the country bumpkin. His transformation from a spirited Tennessee farmer into a Christian pacifist and finally into a doughboy hero celebrates an array of Hollywood conventions, including sacred mothers and fair-minded leaders. Hackneyed? Yes. But this gem’s importance rests in making Cooper a star, if not also in fairly depicting trench warfare only a few months before Pearl Harbor.

That no greater context for World War I is offered here is precisely the point. Sergeant York is narrowly concerned with courage and sacrifice. Anything more would undermine its portrait positing the defense of freedom as an ultimate goal. Simultaneously loving Biblical virtue and skilled gunplay, the movie revels in camaraderie, chaste romance, and dueling fisticuffs. In short, it’s a Hawksian world here perfectly transposed into a biopic long on small town values and short on the violent conflict that made the real-life Alvin York famous. GC-Q

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1940s




DUMBO (1941)

U.S. (Walt Disney) 64m Technicolor

Director: Ben Sharpsteen

Producer: Walt Disney

Screenplay: Otto Englander, from book by Helen Aberson

Music: Frank Churchill, Oliver Wallace

Cast voices: Herman Bing, Billy Bletcher, Edward Brophy, Jim Carmichael, Hall Johnson Choir, Cliff Edwards, Verna Felton, Noreen Gammill, Sterling Holloway, Malcolm Hutton, Harold Manley, John McLeish, Tony Neil, Dorothy Scott, Sarah Selby, Billy Sheets, Charles Stubbs, Margaret Wright

Oscar: Frank Churchill, Oliver Wallace (scoring of a musical picture)

Oscar nomination: Frank Churchill, Ned Washington (best original song)

Cannes Film Festival: Walt Disney (Prix du meilleur dessin animé—best animation design)

Even today, Walt Disney’s animation mills regularly turn to traditional fairy tales and familiar folk favorites for inspiration. But Disney’s fourth animated feature, Dumbo, like the immediately subsequent Bambi, was derived from a relatively low-profile book, which apparently freed the animators from more standard-issue prince-rescues-princess romanticism.

Dumbo is still awash in sentimentality, but the anthropomorphized leads—Dumbo, the outcast baby circus elephant whose giant ears and clumsiness make him the object of ridicule, and Timothy, his worldly rodent companion—lend themselves to some joyfully chaotic action as well as some creatively rendered circus sequences. Yet two scenes during Dumbo’s quest for self-worth stand out above all the rest: the protopsychedelic pink elephant hallucination and the tender, wrenching meeting between Dumbo and his wrongfully “jailed” mother. Animation has rarely been as inventive, moving, and alive as in these two segments, which are paired with equally memorable songs. Dumbo’s eventual triumph over adversity, as well as his reunion with his mother, may be telegraphed from the start, but the film’s emotional arc is so carefully constructed that the jump-through-the-hoops challenges faced by the put-upon elephant only enhance the heart-warming conclusion. JKl

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1940s




HIGH SIERRA (1941)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 100m BW

Director: Raoul Walsh

Producer: Mark Hellinger, Hal B. Wallis

Screenplay: John Huston, from novel by W.R. Burnett

Photography: Tony Gaudio

Music: Adolph Deutsch

Cast: Ida Lupino, Humphrey Bogart, Alan Curtis, Arthur Kennedy, Joan Leslie, Henry Hull, Henry Travers, Jerome Cowan, Minna Gombell, Barton MacLane, Elisabeth Risdon, Cornel Wilde, Donald MacBride, Paul Harvey, Isabel Jewell

Steven jay schneider

High Sierra is a landmark of the gangster genre, a career turning point for Humphrey Bogart, and a model of action-film existentialism by Raoul Walsh. Like Walsh’s earlier The Roaring Twenties (1939), High Sierra is an elegiac gangster film, unusual in this Production Code–ruled period for its sympathetic portrayal of the gangster as an outdated outcast. Old-timer Roy Earle (Bogart), the nobly named hero, towers above the punks and hypocrites he encounters on both sides of the law as he leads an ill-fated hotel heist, foolishly pursues a respectable girl (Joan Leslie), and briefly finds more suitable companionship with a fellow outcast (Ida Lupino).

In contrast to such contemporaries as John Ford, Howard Hawks, Frank Capra, and Michael Curtiz, who stress the value of the community or group, Walsh in this period gave more weight to his heroes’ egotism, nonconformity, and antisocial qualities. High Sierra’s view of straight-and-narrow society is remarkably scathing, reaching a peak in the scene in which Roy is humiliatingly rejected by his vapid middle-class princess in favor of her smug conformist boyfriend.

After a decade of playing squares and punks, Bogart got his most substantial role yet in High Sierra. In The Maltese Falcon, his other important film of 1941, Bogart is expansive, smart-alecky, domineering. In the Walshian universe of High Sierra, Bogart’s subtler performance creates a distinctively different persona: moody, withdrawn, and tense, with his shoulders hunched and his gestures cramped to emphasize the character’s insular nature. Even in Roy’s intimate scenes with his soulmate Marie (Lupino), Walsh places objects and barriers between the lovers to underline their essential isolation.

High Sierra begins and ends with the lofty peak of Mount Whitney, which appears throughout the film, its siren presence beckoning the hero to his lonely destiny. Another underworld character says to Roy, “You remember what Johnny Dillinger said about guys like you and him? He said you were just rushing toward death. Yeah, that’s it: just rushing toward death!” The great car-chase scene in which the cops pursue Roy up the fatal mountain—a spectacular payoff of the entire film’s tight, kinetic style —translates those words into the dynamic visual language of action cinema at its height. MR

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1940s




SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941)

U.S. (Paramount) 90m BW

Director: Preston Sturges

Producer: Paul Jones, Buddy G. DeSylva, Preston Sturges

Screenplay: Preston Sturges

Photography: John F. Seitz

Music: Charles Bradshaw, Leo Shuken

Cast: Joel McCrea, Veronica Lake, Robert Warwick, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn, Porter Hall, Byron Foulger, Margaret Hayes, Robert Greig, Eric Blore, Torben Meyer, Victor Potel, Richard Webb, Charles R. Moore, Almira Sessions

Steven jay schneider

As one of American cinema’s earliest auteurs and cutting a distinctly modern figure (his mother’s best friend was Isadora Duncan; he spent his youth criss-crossing the Atlantic; a “kiss-proof” lipstick and ticker-tape machine were among his patented inventions), Preston Sturges was responsible for an explosion of now-classic films in the 1940s. These films are known for their sophisticated verbal wit, uproarious physical comedy, and their affectionate portrayal of eccentric, scene-stealing supporting characters. But Sturges’s work is also consistent in its exploration of the possibilities and prospects of upward—and occasionally downward—mobility. In what may be his finest, most complex film, Sullivan’s Travels (1942), Sturges brilliantly mixes broad humor with sharp-edged cultural commentary, once again—as in The Creat McCinty (1940), Christmas in July (1940), and The Lady Eve (1941)—revealing social identity to be a highly unstable proposition, capable of hyperbolic transformation through such prosaic means as disguise, confusion, and self-deception.

John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a can’t-miss Hollywood director who specializes in lightweight entertainment, exemplified by broad comedies such as the 1939 film Ants in Your Pants. Naive and sheltered by a solicitous staff who have no interest in seeing their meal ticket change genres or become overly ambitious in his cinematic pursuits, Sully nonetheless sets his sights on directing an epic social commentary picture about tough times in Depression-era America, to be entitled O Brother, Where Art Thou? (a fictional title eventually used by the Coen Brothers for their own 2000 film, in clever tribute to Sturges). To research his topic, which involves such unpleasant issues as suffering, deprivation, and racial inequality, Sully insists on disguising himself as a hobo and making his way across the country to experience “real life” firsthand.

Once on the road, assorted adventures, meetings (notably with Veronica Lake’s down-on-her-luck ingenue), and mishaps—some hilarious, others surprisingly poignant—transpire before Sully eventually comes to terms with his true calling as a lowbrow moviemaker with a gift for making people laugh. The lesson here is that strained seriousness and forced profundity have far less benefit for the masses than good old-fashioned humor, with its power to help people forget their troubles, if only for a while.

That Sullivan’s Travels possesses an autobiographical dimension is impossible to deny, with Sturges affirming the value of what he himself did best—making smart comedies with the power to lift viewers’ spirits—while ripping apart the pretentiousness of Hollywood’s more sober and “socially committed” filmmakers. Personal statements aside, however, the tour de force script brings together a remarkable range of genres, including slapstick, action, melodrama, social documentary, romance, musical, and prison movie. Though it failed to garner a single Oscar nomination, Sullivon’s Travels is the most remarkable film in the career of one of America’s greatest filmmakers. SJS

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1940s




HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY (1941)

U.S. (Fox) 118 min BW

Director: John Ford

Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck

Screenplay: Philip Dunne, from novel by Richard Llewellyn

Photography: Arthur C. Miller

Music: Alfred Newman

Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Maureen O’Hara, Anna Lee, Donald Crisp, Roddy McDowall, John Loder, Sara Allgood, Barry Fitzgerald, Patric Knowles, Morton Lowry, Arthur Shields, Ann E. Todd, Frederick Worlock, Richard Fraser, Evan S. Evans

Oscars: Darryl F. Zanuck (best picture), John Ford (director), Donald Crisp (actor in support role), Richard Day, Nathan Juran, Thomas Little (art direction), Arthur C. Miller (photography)

Oscar nominations: Philip Dunne (screenplay), Sara Allgood (actress in support role), James B. Clark (editing), Alfred Newman (music), Edmund H. Hansen (sound)

Steven jay schneider

Though John Ford was most famous, of course, for making Westerns, he also had a fondness for all things Irish. Not that this Oscar-winning version of Richard Llewellyn’s novel was transported across the Irish Sea from its setting in the Welsh coal-mining valleys; rather, the film is imbued with the same kind of fulsome nostalgia for the eccentric satisfactions of family life in the old country that distinguished the 1952 film The Quiet Man. Ford’s Wales, in fact, is just as much a country of the mind as was his beloved Ireland (at least in terms of how it was depicted on screen or invoked in words). This explains why Richard Day’s beautifully designed mining village, for all the painstaking detail applied to its construction on the Fox backlot, feels like a dream of archetypal Welshness rather than any real village.

That, however, is wholly appropriate to the mood of nostalgia that fuels How Green Was My Valley from start to finish. The story is narrated by a man reflecting on his now-distant childhood, when as the youngest son (Roddy McDowall) of the Morgan family, he would see his father (Donald Crisp) and four brothers traipse daily up the hill on the way to the pit. What he recalls are not just the hardships—the perilous working conditions, the threat of poverty, cold, and hunger—and the tragic deaths but also the warm, loving sense of community that reigned in the lives both of the family and of the village as a whole. But that happy togetherness was forever lost when wage cuts brought strikes and conflict between the kindly but traditional patriarch and the (marginally) more militant sons: a conflict that resulted in the boys going off to find better-paid work in the Promised Land of—where else?—America.

The entire film is colored by bittersweet remembrance: by the loss of family, childhood innocence, one’s country, and a stern but fair father. It’s true Ford idealizes the world he depicts, but that is what makes it so effective. Yes, the film is a tearjerker, it is clichéd (the miners never seem to stop singing), and the accents are an odd mix from all around the United Kingdom and Ireland—but aren’t dreams ever thus? GA

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1940s




THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942)

U.S. (Paramount) 88m BW

Director: Preston Sturges

Producer: Paul Jones

Screenplay: Preston Sturges

Photography: Victor Milner

Music: Victor Young

Cast: Claudette Colbert, Joel McCrea, Mary Astor, Rudy Vallee, Sig Arno, Robert Warwick, Arthur Stuart Hull, Torben Meyer, Jimmy Conlin, Victor Potel, William Demarest, Jack Norton, Robert Greig, Roscoe Ates, Dewey Robinson

Rudy Vallee turns in his all-time best performance as a gentle, puny millionaire named John D. Hackensacker III in this brilliant, simultaneously tender and scalding 1942 screwball comedy. Claudette Colbert plays Geraldine, the wife of Thomas Jeffers (Joel McCrea), an ambitious but penniless architectural engineer; she takes off for Florida and winds up being wooed by Hackensacker. When Thomas shows up, she persuades him to pose as her brother. Also on hand are such indelible Sturges creations as the Weenie King (Robert Dudley), the madly destructive Ale and Quail Club, Hackensacker’s acerbic sister (Mary Astor), her European boyfriend of obscure national origins, and many Sturges regulars.

The Hackensacker character may be the closest thing to a parodic self-portrait in the Sturges canon, but The Palm Beach Story is informed with such wry wisdom and humor that it transcends its personal nature. The part was written for Vallee after Sturges saw him in a film musical, noticed that the audience laughed every time he opened his mouth, and concluded that the man was hilarious without even knowing it. This unawareness played a major role in Sturges’s conception of comedy, extending to the gullibility of viewers as well as characters. The frantic opening sequence “gives away” the plot’s surprise ending before the audience can even begin to grasp what’s going on. As critic James Harvey aptly noted, “In this movie, whenever reality becomes a problem—on the way to Penn Station, for example, when a cab driver played by Frank Faylen agrees to take Colbert there for nothing—it’s simply revoked.” JRos

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1940s




NOW, VOYAGER (1942)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 117m BW

Director: Irving Rapper

Producer: Hal B. Wallis

Screenplay: Casey Robinson, from novel by Olive Higgins Prouty

Photography: Sol Polito

Music: Max Steiner

Cast: Bette Davis, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Gladys Cooper, Bonita Granville, John Loder, Ilka Chase, Lee Patrick, Franklin Pangborn, Katharine Alexander, James Rennie, Mary Wickes

Oscar: Max Steiner (music)

Oscar nominations: Bette Davis (actress), Gladys Cooper (actress in support role)

The enduring popularity of Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager derives from the film’s unembarrassed emotional crescendos, its star power, and particularly the pleasure—however perverse—we get from seeing Bette Davis’s transformation from ugly duckling to swan (she was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance).

One of the classic American melodramas and the model “makeover” movie, Now, Voyager tells the elaborate story of spinster Charlotte Vale (Davis), the impossibly frumpy daughter (her heavy eyebrows and glasses tell it all) of an oppressive Boston matriarch. Psychiatrist Dr. Jaquith (Claude Rains) rescues Charlotte by sending her to a sanitarium, where her cure is signaled by the doctor’s dramatic breaking of her eyeglasses (what “normal” woman needs them?) and her reemergence (set to a dramatic Max Steiner score) as movie star Bette Davis: gorgeous from plucked brows to two-toned pumps. This newly hatched butterfly goes on a cruise and falls in love with Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid), a married man; their romance is told largely through the expressive use of cigarettes, which imply the sex that is not seen on screen. The plot spirals wonderfully out from there, ending with the decision not to pursue more than friendship with Charlotte’s famous, if cryptic, lines: “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.” MO

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1940s




CASABLANCA (1942)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 102m BW

Language: English / French / German

Director: Michael Curtiz

Producer: Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner

Screenplay: Murray Burnett, Joan Alison

Photography: Arthur Edeson

Music: M.K. Jerome, Jack Scholl, Max Steiner

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, S.Z. Sakall, Madeleine LeBeau, Dooley Wilson, Joy Page, John Qualen, Leonid Kinskey, Curt Bois

Oscars: Hal B. Wallis (best picture), Michael Curtiz (director), Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch (screenplay)

Oscar nominations: Humphrey Bogart (actor), Claude Rains (actor in support role), Arthur Edeson (photography), Owen Marks (editing), Max Steiner (music)

Steven jay schneider

The most beloved Academy Award Best Picture winner of all, this romantic war melodrama epitomizes the 1940s craze for studio-bound exotica, with the Warners lot transformed into a fantastical North Africa that has far more resonance than any mere real place possibly could. Casablanca also offers more cult performers, quotable lines, instant clichés, and Hollywood chutzpah than any other film of the movies’ golden age.

Humphrey Bogart’s Rick (“Of all the gin joints. . .”), in white dinner jacket or belted trenchcoat, and Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa (“I know that I’ll never have the strength to leave you again”), a vision in creations more suited to a studio floor than a desert city, moon over each other in a café-casino as that haunting tune (“As Time Goes By”) tinkles in the background, transporting them back to a simpler life before the war soured everything. But the best performance comes from Claude Rains as the cynical but romantic police chief Renault (“Round up the usual suspects”), a wry observer of life’s absurdities who is at once an opportunist survivor and the film’s truest romantic—fully deserving of the famous final moments (“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”) that show it is he, not Ilsa, who is the fitting partner for Rick’s newly-dedicated-to-freedom hero.

Also memorable in an enormous supporting cast: Paul Henreid’s Czech patriot Victor Laszlo, leading the scum of the continent in a rousing rendition of “La Marseillaise” that drowns out the Nazi sing-along and restores even the most ardent collaborationists and parasites to patriotic fervor; Peter Lorre’s hustler Ugarte, shyly admitting that he trusts Rick because the man despises him; Conrad Veidt’s heel-clicking Nazi villain Major Strasser, reaching to make a phone call he’ll never complete; Dooley Wilson’s loyal Sam, stroking the piano and exchanging looks with the leads; S. Z. Sakall’s blubbery majordomo Carl, a displaced Austro-Hungarian sweating despite the ceiling fan; and Sydney Greenstreet’s unlikely Arab-Italian entrepreneur Ferrari, squatting befezzed on what looks like a magic carpet. Even the extras are brilliantly cast, adding to the lively, seductive, populated feel of a movie that, more than any other, its fans have wanted to inhabit—an impulse that fuels Woody Allen’s charming homage in Play It Again, Sam.

Curtiz tells a complicated, gimmicky story, weighted down with exposition and structured around a midpoint Paris flashback that breaks most of the screenwriting rules, with so little fuss and so much confidence that the whole assembly seems seamless, even though it was apparently rewritten from day to day so that Bergman did not know until the shooting of the final scene whether she would fly off with Henreid or stick around with Bogie. Lasting cult greatness came about through its attitude, but also its rare sense of the incomplete: Made before the war was over, it dares to leave its characters literally up in the air or out in the desert, leaving its original audiences and the many who have discovered the film over the years to wonder what happened to these people (whose petty problems don’t amount to “a hill of beans”) during the next few turbulent years. KN

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1940s




TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942)

U.S. (Romaine) 99m BW

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Producer: Alexander Korda, Ernst Lubitsch

Screenplay: Melchior Lengyel, Edwin Justus Mayer

Photography: Rudolph Maté

Music: Werner R. Heymann, Miklós Rózsa

Cast: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman, Tom Dugan, Charles Halton, George Lynn, Henry Victor, Maude Eburne, Halliwell Hobbes, Miles Mander

Oscar nomination: Werner R. Heymann (music)

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“What he did to Shakespeare, we are now doing to Poland,” jokes a German colonel about a hammy thespian in Ernst Lubitsch’s outrageous wartime black comedy. In an age when nothing is too sacred or serious to be lampooned, it is difficult to imagine the controversy that originally surrounded Lubitsch’s sparklingly witty, screamingly funny screwball anti-Nazi farce.

Lubitsch was a German Jew who settled in the United States in the 1920s and made a string of smashing, inimitably stylish comedies. Even so, he was dubious when Melchior Lengyel, who conceived Lubitsch’s Ninotchka (1939), pitched his concept about an acting troupe who impersonate members of the Gestapo to save Polish resistants. But eventually the director felt—and hoped—that Americans would be more concerned about Poland if he could arouse their sympathy through laughter by applying the celebrated Lubitsch Touch (with a sophisticated screenplay by Edwin Justus Mayer) to the Nazis and their adversaries.

Comic Jack Benny in his finest hour plays Josef Tura, vain actor-manager of a theater company, forever at odds with his flirtatious wife and leading lady Maria, played by delicious Carole Lombard (who took the part over the misgivings of husband Clark Gable and was tragically killed before the film’s release). After a battle-of-the-sexes setup, the Turas have bigger things to worry about—like the invasion of Poland—and they become embroiled in espionage. The tone shifts with a betrayal and shifts again when Tura’s bickering troupe put aside their differences and devise an audacious masquerade to extract Maria and her Resistance hero admirer (Robert Stack) from Gestapo headquarters.

It has often been remarked that this is Lubitsch’s funniest film because it is his most serious—proven by Mel Brooks’s 1983 remake, which featured amusing mugging but missed the urgency of desperate deeds in a dangerous time. Sardonic laughs (like Tom Dugan’s fiendish Hitler impersonation) do not obscure the substance of the satire, the film’s insight into the evil ordinary men are capable of when they get a taste of power, or its engaging message that even egotistical actors can do something swell when they act like human beings. AE

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1940s




CAT PEOPLE (1942)

U.S. (RKO) 73m BW

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Producer: Val Lewton, Lou L. Ostrow

Screenplay: DeWitt Bodeen

Photography: Nicholas Musuraca

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Simone Simon, Kent Smith, Tom Conway, Jane Randolph, Jack Holt

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The Val Lewton/RKO–produced horror films of the 1940s are a high point of the horror genre, films renowned for a subtle aura of dread rather than gross special effects. Cat People, directed by Jacques Tourneur, presents the tragic tale of Irena the cat-woman, who fears she will destroy those she loves most.

Ollie Reed (Kent Smith) spots sweet and sexy Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon) sketching the black panther at the zoo. Their whirlwind romance leads to marriage, but signs of trouble show up early. Irena seems obsessed with the big cats and listens to their cries (“like a woman”) in the night. But when Ollie takes a cute kitten home to her, it hisses and spits. “Strange,” the pet store owner tells Ollie, “cats can always tell if there’s something not right about a person.”

What’s wrong with Irena remains fundamentally ambiguous, and that is a strength of this film. Is she a repressed young woman afraid to consummate her marriage, as her psychiatrist (Tom Conway) implies, or heir to the evil Satan-worshipping witches of her home village back in Serbia? Irena fears that strong passions of lust, jealousy, or anger will unleash the murderous panther within her. These passions do run amok: in one scene she destroys her amorous shrink, and in other scary sequences she stalks her rival Alice (Jane Randolph), who works with Ollie and also loves him.

Cat People will not scare the pants off you, but neither does it overdo the sexual angle as did the ludicrous Paul Schrader remake of 1982, with its bondage scenes and graphic violence. It is creepily effective, particularly in its use of light and shadows. In a justly famous scene, Irena follows Alice to a basement swimming pool, forcing her to tread water in panic while mysterious sounds erupt and shadows flicker across reflections of watery light.

Though somewhat dated, Cat People features sharp dialogue. Alice is likeable as “the new kind of other woman”—smart, independent, decent, and caring. Ollie is probably too bland to merit the love of such wonderful women. It is Irena who remains central and lingers in the viewer’s mind, one of horror’s most sympathetic monsters (like Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein creature). Simon is charming—a bit “off” with her catlike visage, sweet, sad, and unwillingly dangerous. CFr

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1940s




THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942)

U.S. (Mercury, RKO) 88m BW

Director: Orson Welles, Fred Fleck

Producer: Jack Moss, George Schaefer, Orson Welles

Screenplay: Orson Welles, from novel by Booth Tarkington

Photography: Stanley Cortez

Music: Bernard Herrmann, Roy Webb

Cast: Joseph Cotten, Dolores Costello, Anne Baxter, Tim Holt, Agnes Moorehead, Ray Collins, Erskine Sanford, Richard Bennett, Orson Welles (narrator)

Oscar nominations: Orson Welles (best picture), Agnes Moorehead (actress in support role), Stanley Cortez (photography), Albert S. D’Agostino, A. Roland Fields, Darrell Silvera (art direction)

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The unprecedented deal with RKO Pictures that Orson Welles signed in 1940 for two films allowed total creative freedom but within strict budgets. The Magnificent Ambersons is the too-often-overlooked second movie made under that contract. It was undertaken after the completion of Citizen Kane (1941) but before the wrath of William Randolph Hearst and Welles’s own unreliable genius “wrecked” his career as a Hollywood filmmaker. Welles’s desire to bring Booth Tarkington’s novel The Ambersons (he also wrote Alice Adams, Monsieur Beaucaire, and the Penrod stories—all film staples) to the big screen was obviously a more personal project for him than Kane. He had already completed an adaptation of the novel with the Mercury Theatre, which was broadcast on radio.

Rooted in the turn-of-the-century world of the haute bourgeoisie that Welles remembered from his own childhood, The Magnificent Ambersons is the story of George Amberson Minafer (Tim Holt), the talented but unlikable offspring of an aristocratic family who receives the comeuppance everyone wants for him. Apart from all the other parallels, Welles’s suppressed first name was George. As this must have seemed not only autobiographical but, at the stage the film was being made, horribly prophetic, it is to Welles’s credit that his ego let him cast Holt, a juvenile cowboy taking a rare serious role (as he would again only in 1948’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), as the lead.

The first seventy minutes are a revelation of creative genius, more than equaling Kane. The film opens with a charming but pointed lecture on male fashions, narrated by Welles and displayed by Joseph Cotten, then recreates precisely the cluttered, stuffy, lively, strange world of the Ambersons that is gradually torn apart by the twentieth-century—symbolized, presciently, by the motor car—and its own hidden weaknesses. Working with cinematographer Stanley Cortez rather than Gregg Toland, Welles crafts a film that is as visually striking as Kane, but which also manages a warmer, melancholy nostalgia for sleigh rides and cartes de visite even as it shows how the iniquities of a classbound society constrain decent folk to lifelong misery. Enterprising Eugene (Cotten) loses his wellborn love Isabel (Costello) to a clod from a prominent family but is unable to separate himself from the magnificence of the Ambersons even as the march of time reduces it to pathetic shreds.

While Citizen Kane is all set pieces, The Magnificent Ambersons is seamless: Typical is a ballroom sequence in which the camera whirls through the dancers, picking up snatches of plot and dialogue, following a large cast, surrendering to music and history. It’s a tragedy that Welles’s original cut was taken away (admittedly, while he was in enjoying himself in Brazil and not returning calls) and cut down. In the last ten minutes, the cast adopt fixed expressions as they struggle through a happy ending stuck on by someone else (probably editor Robert Wise). It’s like a Groucho moustache daubed onto the Mona Lisa, though Alfonso Arau’s 2002 remake, which sticks to Welles’s original scripted ending, found little favor: The magic was obviously unrepeatable. KN

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1940s




YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (1942)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 126m BW

Director: Michael Curtiz

Producer: William Cagney, Hal B. Wallis, Jack L. Warner

Screenplay: Robert Buckner, Edmund Joseph

Photography: James Wong Howe

Music: George M. Cohan, Ray Heindorf, Heinz Roemheld

Cast: James Cagney, Joan Leslie, Walter Huston, Richard Whorf, Irene Manning, George Tobias, Rosemary DeCamp, Jeanne Cagney, Frances Langford, George Barbier, S.Z. Sakall, Walter Catlett, Douglas Croft, Eddie Foy Jr., Minor Watson

Oscars: James Cagney (actor), Ray Heindorf, Heinz Roemheld (music), Nathan Levinson (sound)

Oscar nominations: Jack L. Warner, Hal B. Wallis, William Cagney (best picture), Michael Curtiz (director), Robert Buckner (screenplay), Walter Huston (actor in support role), George Amy (editing)

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How terribly easy it would be from a postmodern, politically correct, and sophisticated perspective to regard Yankee Doodle Dandy as jingoistic propaganda. Indeed, this flag-waving musical extravaganza biopic, detailing the life of patriotic Irish American song-and-dance man George M. Cohan (the first performer to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor), gushes with sentimental, simplistic musical numbers invariably characterized by Cohan’s trademark stiff-kneed, effervescent, brash dancing style and championing through their lyrics the most stolid American institutions: “Grand Old Flag,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “Over There,” and the title song, to name a few. The film is a flashback—told by a modest Cohan to FDR—that ends with a self-conscious advertisement for intervention: “I wouldn’t worry about this country if I were you. We’ve got this thing licked. Where else in the world could a plain guy like me come in and talk things over with the head man?”

But such a cynical reading would fail grossly to miss something surprising and touching and grand that runs through Yankee Doodle Dandy like a clear river, and that is James Cagney’s magnificent sincerity in the title role. This is evident in his way of embarrassedly smiling to punctuate his thoughts, in his soft and civilized speaking voice; in the astonishing virtuosity of his dancing which is persuasive and original in style, unrelentingly athletic while also being childish, playful, and beautifully meaningless; and in something we rarely see onscreen anymore since alienated distance has overtaken Hollywood performance, and that is Cagney’s complete and loving belief in everything he does. Michael Curtiz’s direction never overplays him, James Wong Howe’s lush black-and-white cinematography never fails to show every nuance of his posture and expression in articulate light. And when his hoofer father (Walter Huston) is falling away into death, with Georgie at his bedside, Cagney gives in to a rush of honest feeling that carries him into tears. So much, in fact, do we care for this man we forget we are watching a performance. Cagney has become Cohan. Even more, he has become the optimistic spirit of the screen. MP

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1940s




MESHES OF THE AFTERNOON (1943)

U.S. 18m Silent BW

Director: Maya Deren, Alexander Hammid

Screenplay: Maya Deren

Photography: Alexander Hammid

Music: Teiji Ito (added 1952)

Cast: Maya Deren, Alexander Hammid

A famous image from the avant-garde classic Meshes of the Afternoon shows its auteur and star, Maya Deren, at a window, tree leaves reflected lyrically in the glass; she looks out wistfully, hands on the pane. This image has metamorphosed many times—into Anna Karina at a futuristic motel window (Alphaville [1965]); into Annette Bening in a padded cell (In Dreams [1998]); into Caroline Dulcey in her gleaming, white apartment (Romance [1999]). Whatever its mutation, the image remains a vivid, dreamy, terrifying picture of women’s confinement.

Meshes comes from that branch of the American avant-garde taken with a special kind of storytelling, the surrealist journey of a figure through an ever-changing dreamscape. Deren, working from her own fantasies and shooting in her own home, made an intuitive leap that has given the film its lasting resonance. Her vision of Los Angeles links this mythopoetic impulse with an atmosphere that is proto-film noir in its use of architecture and interior design, not to mention its atmosphere of dread and menace.

This was one of the first films to make the indelible link between a woman’s gothic experience of coming unglued—splintered into multiple personalities, plagued by visions, slipping between alternate realities—and the sunny spaces of home, whose every tiny facet, from the slope of the lounge room staircase to the kitchen table’s bread knife, is heightened. For Deren, it is the domestic everyday that lays the meshes that ensnare and traumatize women.

Among the many arts in which Deren involved herself, dance was prominent. Her extraordinary body language in Meshes marries choreography to ordinary rituals, another combination that influenced women’s cinema for decades. Deren used her movements as a way to trigger montage, to suggest rhythmic forms and create pictorial shapes: In this flux of dream projections, she is the only anchor.

Yet, for all her movement, the last shot of Meshes reveals that this modern heroine has probably not even moved from her lounge chair. But what she has imagined manages to destroy her; this is the tale of a death drive, of a dream that kills. AM

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1940s




FIRES WERE STARTED (1943)

G.B. (Crown) 80m BW

Director: Humphrey Jennings

Producer: Ian Dalrymple

Screenplay: Humphrey Jennings

Photography: C.M. Pennington-Richards

Music: William Alwyn

Cast: Philip Dickson, George Gravett, Fred Griffiths, Johnny Houghton, Loris Rey

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Humphrey Jennings’s wartime classic was previewed in a longer version with a more attention-grabbing title, I Was a Fireman, which was oddly unsuitable for its resolutely collectivist vision of blitzed Britain. In 1942, Fires Were Started was considered a “documentary” and set against the commercial tradition of filmmaking, hailed as more authentic than an Ealing fiction film on the same subject, The Bells Go Down. Now, its use of nonprofessional actors who happened to be real firemen playing fictionally named characters in an archetypal story of a day on shift and a fire at night under a full moon (“a bomber’s moon”) looks far more like Neorealism or even straight offHollywood filmmaking. There is some newsreel stock footage, but the fire station is a set and the fire consists of physical effects. It has a rough credibility that is sometimes helped by the awkwardness of a few players—though the reactions to the tragic death of the most lovably cockney of the team feel forced (“Jacko’s copped it”) and the moral (“snap out of it”) misses the “who’s Joe?” from Only Angels Have Wings (1939).

Among the cast are Fred Griffiths, who went pro and became a familiar character actor, and—in the role of the ad exec newbie who is shown the ropes—William Sansom, who became a writer of interestingly creepy short fiction. It’s the epitome of Angus Calder’s “Myth of the Blitz,” with a cross-class, even multicultural (we see an East End Chinaman) group knuckling down to get the job done, and no sign of any pompous stuffed shirts among the well-spoken bureaucrats or telephone operators whose jobs are just as vital to fire fighting as the hose wielders (a much-parodied moment has the telephone operator apologize for the interruption after diving under her desk when a bomb hits).

The fiery finale, in which a blaze is controlled before it sets light to a munitions ship, delivers action and suspense. But Jennings seems less stirred by it than the acutely observed buildup in which he catches the men singing round the piano, playing pool, training, doing menial workrelated tasks, and generally acting like real people. KN

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1940s




THE MAN IN GREY (1943)

G.B. (Gainsborough) 1l6m BW

Director: Leslie Arliss

Producer: Edward Black

Screenplay: Leslie Arliss, Margaret Kennedy

Photography: Arthur Crabtree

Music: Cedric Mallabey

Cast: Margaret Lockwood, James Mason, Phyllis Calvert, Stewart Granger, Helen Haye, Raymond Lovell, Nora Swinburne, Martita Hunt, Jane Gill-Davis, Amy Veness, Stuart Lindsell, Diana King, Beatrice Varley

English cinema is perhaps best known for realist dramas, but an important second tradition is the costume melodrama, of which The Man in Grey is probably the finest example and one of the more popular films Gainsborough Studios ever made. The plot is fairly forgettable, involving two young women whose lives interestingly intersect. Clarissa (Phyllis Calvert) marries the cruelly indifferent Marquis of Rohan (James Mason), but her friend Hesther (Margaret Lockwood) introduces her to another rogue, the bold and immoral Rokeby (Stewart Granger). Soon the pair have switched partners, but all ends badly as Clarissa dies miserably and the crazed Marquis beats Hesther to death.

The plot, however, derived from a subliterary novel by Lady Eleanor Smith, is not the main focus of director Leslie Arliss’s efforts. Calvert and Lockwood turn in suitably intense performances as the contrasting blonde- and dark-haired leads, and Mason is effectively reptilian as the Marquis. But the real star of the film is its art design. Regency period England is faithfully resurrected, with its ornate interior decor and European furniture, and its elaborate and elegant dress for actors and actresses alike. The sumptuous look of The Man in Grey provides a perfect contrast to its exploration of the dark underside of aristocratic life, with the story’s gothic elements eliciting a suitable frisson from the absorbed viewer. RBP

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1940s




THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943)

G.B. (Independent, Archers) 163m Technicolor

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Producer: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, Richard Vernon

Screenplay: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Photography: Georges Périnal

Music: Allan Gray

Cast: James McKechnie, Neville Mapp, Vincent Holman, Roger Livesey, David Hutcheson, Spencer Trevor, Roland Culver, James Knight, Deborah Kerr, Dennis Arundell, David Ward, Jan Van Loewen, Valentine Dyall, Carl Jaffe, Albert Lieven

Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) is a veteran of both the Boer War and World War I, twice retired, who believes that all of life’s conflicts can be met with honor and decorum. He doesn’t realize that the world has changed around him, and that his old-fashioned dictums of behavior may no longer apply in the World War II arena, yet with the stubbornness of a good soldier he holds firm to his beliefs and hurtles forward.

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp at the height of World War II, when London was being bombed nightly by the Germans. A comedy of manners may not appear the best way to address current events, but the Powell-Pressburger team once again comes through, delicately revealing the horrible truth of modern warfare with grace and humor. It doesn’t hurt that they tell the story through three romances, as Livesey woos the ever-luminous Deborah Kerr (in three different roles) over the years. It all adds up to one of the most ambitious and impressive achievements of not just Powell and Pressburger but in all of British cinema. JKl

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1940s




I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (1943)

U.S. (RKO) 69 m BW

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Producer: Val Lewton

Screenplay: Inez Wallace, Curt Siodmak

Photography: J. Roy Hunt

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: James Ellison, Frances Dee, Tom Conway, Edith Barrett, James Bell, Christine Gordon, Theresa Harris, Sir Lancelot, Darby Jones, Jeni Le Gon

The second Val Lewton–Jacques Tourneur horror film, I Walked with a Zombie, transposes the plot of Jane Eyre into the West Indies, with a young nurse (Frances Dee) discovering that her employer’s apparently catatonic wife (Christine Gordon) has been transformed by voodoo into one of the walking dead. Framed by a calypso that fills in the plot background (“Shame and Sorrow in the Family”), this is a remarkably eerie picture.

Heroine Betsy Connell (Dee) succumbs to an exquisitely conjured atmosphere of the supernatural, yet works hard to understand the culture of natives other films would dismiss as superstitious. Here, though, they turn out to be far more tuned in to what is happening than any of the supposedly civilized white characters. As in many of Lewton’s films, the most memorable sequence is a night-time walk, with Dee leading the blonde zombie through the cane fields, coming up against an unforgettable bug-eyed island creature (Darby Jones). I Walked with a Zombie uses Caribbean folklore and weird religious imagery (a figurehead of St. Sebastian) to spice up a romantic tangle, one that ends with nobody happy and the villain lured into the waves after his zombie beloved. About as far from Bela Lugosi in The Corpse Vanishes as could possibly be imagined. KN

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1940s




THE SEVENTH VICTIM (1943)

U.S. (RKO) 71m BW

Director: Mark Robson

Producer: Val Lewton

Screenplay: DeWitt Bodeen, Charles O’Neal

Photography: Nicholas Musuraca

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Tom Conway, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, Kim Hunter, Evelyn Brent, Erford Gage, Ben Bard, Hugh Beaumont, Chef Milani, Marguerita Sylva

Perhaps the best of the run of terrific RKO horror films produced by Val Lewton in the 1940s, The Seventh Victim is a strikingly modern, poetically doom-laden picture. Naive orphan Mary Gibson (Kim Hunter) comes to Manhattan in search of her strange elder sister Jacqueline (Jean Brooks, with a memorable Cleopatra wig) and learns she was mixed up with a sect of chic diabolists who now want to drive her to suicide for betraying their cult.

Director Mark Robson stages several remarkable suspense sequences—two Satanists trying to get rid of a corpse in a crowded subway train, Brooks’s pursuit through the city by sinister figures and her own neuroses—and indulges in weirdly arty touches that take the horror film away from traditional witchcraft toward something very like existential angst. The Seventh Victim is full of things that must have been startling in 1943 and are still unusual now: a gaggle of varied lesbian characters (not all unsympathetic), a heroine who comes to seem as calculating as the villains, and a desperate finish that contrasts a dying woman (Elizabeth Russell) dressed up to go out on the town for the last time with the end-of-her-tether Jacqueline as she shuts herself up in a grim rented room to hang herself. KN

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THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943)

U.S. (Fox) 75m BW

Director: William A. Wellman

Producer: Lamar Trotti

Screenplay: Lamar Trotti, from novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark

Photography: Arthur C. Miller

Music: Cyril J. Mockridge

Cast: Henry Fonda, Dana Andrews, Mary Beth Hughes, Anthony Quinn, William Eythe, Harry Morgan, Jane Darwell, Matt Briggs, Harry Davenport, Frank Conroy, Marc Lawrence, Paul Hurst, Victor Kilian, Chris-Pin Martin, Willard Robertson

Oscar nomination: Lamar Trotti (best picture)

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A key film in the history of the Western, The Ox-Bow Incident was one of many made in the 1940s that showed that the Western—previously a genre with low cultural prestige—could take on important issues. In a small Nevada town in 1885, a rumor spreads that a local rancher has been killed by rustlers. While the sheriff is out of town a lynch mob is formed and captures three passing strangers. Despite their protestations of innocence, the men are hanged, only for the perpetrators to discover the rancher is not dead and the real rustlers have been apprehended.

This concise little film (only seventy-five minutes long) packs a good deal of star power. Henry Fonda is a local cowboy, shown initially as a thoughtless saloon brawler, who eventually stands up against the mob. The three victims are played by Dana Andrews, a patently innocent family man; Anthony Quinn, a Mexican drifter; and Francis Ford, brother of the more illustrious John, a senile old man. Frank Conroy is excellent as a blustering ex-Confederate major who bullies his son into helping with the hanging, and Jane Darwell, notable as Ma Joad in John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath three years earlier, is a merciless old cattlewoman.

The Ox-Bow Incident makes a powerful plea for the rule of law as the basis of civilization. Besides Fonda, the only townspeople who resist the mob hysteria are a storekeeper (Harry Davenport) and a black preacher (Leigh Whipper), who has more reason than most to protest, having seen his own brother lynched. At the end, when the truth has sunk in, Fonda shames the mob by reading out a letter written by Andrews’s character to his wife.

Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th Century Fox at the time, insisted the film be cheaply shot on studio sets; in fact, the confined spaces give The Ox-Bow Incident a greater intensity than it might have derived from expansive Western landscapes. The script is based on a highly accomplished first novel by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, a Nevadan whose later novel, Track of the Cat, was also filmed by William Wellman. EB

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1940s




SHADOW OF A DOUBT (1943)

U.S. (Skirball, Universal) 108m BW

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Producer: Jack H. Skirball

Screenplay: Gordon McDonell, Thornton Wilder

Photography: Joseph A. Valentine

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Cast: Teresa Wright, Joseph Cotten, Macdonald Carey, Henry Travers, Patricia Collinge, Hume Cronyn, Wallace Ford, Edna May Wonacott, Charles Bates, Irving Bacon, Clarence Muse, Janet Shaw, Estelle Jewell

Oscar nomination: Gordon McDonell (screenplay)

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When interviewed by admirer and famous acolyte François Truffaut, Alfred Hitchcock referred to Shadow of a Doubt as his favorite film. Tellingly, it’s also one of his least flashy works, a quiet character study set in the heart of suburbia. Although the heart of his suburbia is still rotten with murder and deceit, Hitchcock emphasizes traditional suspense beats over intricate set pieces, stocking the story with just as much uneasy humor as tension.

Charlie (Teresa Wright) is elated when her uncle and namesake Charlie (played to smarmy perfection by Joseph Cotton) comes to visit her and her mother. She soon suspects her revered Uncle Charlie is actually a serial killer, “the Merry Widow Murderer,” on the run from his latest killing. Once on to her suspicions, her Uncle Charlie doesn’t seem interested in leaving behind any loose ends, but the younger Charlie doesn’t know how to reconcile her affection for her uncle with her fears.

Hitchcock actually shot Shadow of a Doubt on location, in the small town of Santa Rosa, California, the better to tear apart the flimsy façade and expose the bland, safe suburbs for the hotbed of secrets it no doubt is. The script, written by Thornton Wilder with input from Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville, takes perverse glee in destroying preconceived notions of quiet, small town life. The film is also peppered with numerous references to twins and the duality of good and evil, paralleling the trustful and innocent Charlie with her dangerous and deceitful uncle.

Dimitri Tiomkin’s score keeps the suspense ratcheted up, particularly his use of Franz Lehar’s “Merry Widow” waltz—the signifier of Uncle Charlie’s guilt and the haunting motif that represents the horrific inclinations he can barely disguise or suppress. A pair of nosey neighbors also offer a running commentary, discussing the various means and methods by which a murder might be committed and then covered up. That a real murder lurks right next door provides dollops of ironic humor. The neighbors continue to ruminate on various homicidal scenarios as Charlie races to settle her conflicted feelings for her Uncle Charlie before he permanently does it for her. JKl

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1940s




OSSESSIONE (1943)

Italy (ICI) 142m BW

Language: Italian

Director: Luchino Visconti

Producer: Libero Solaroli

Screenplay: Luchino Visconti, Mario Alicata

Photography: Domenico Scala, Aldo Tonti

Music: Giuseppe Rosati

Cast: Clara Calamai, Massimo Girotti, Dhia Cristiani, Elio Marcuzzo, Vittorio Duse, Michele Riccardini, Juan de Landa

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One of the great speculative games one can play with cinema history centers on Luchino Visconti’s Ossessione: what if this had been the picture that heralded the arrival of an exciting new film movement from Italy, and not Roberto Rossellini’s Open City in 1945? It would have indeed been interesting, but alas we’ll never know; because Visconti’s screenplay was clearly lifted from James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, Cain and his publishers kept it off American screens until 1976, when it had its much belated premiere at the New York Film Festival. Cain had just died, and probably never saw it—a pity, because he would have discovered the best cinematic adaptation of his work.

Massimo Girotti is Gino Costa, a sweaty, T-shirt-clad drifter who lands a job in a roadside café run by portly opera buff Bragana (Juan de Landa). Bragana has a wife, Giovanna (the luminous Clara Calamai, Rossellini’s first choice for the Anna Magnani role in Open City), and it isn’t long before Gino and Giovanna are in each others arms, making plans to get away. Adhering closely to Cain’s storyline, Visconti is immensely aided by the sheer physical chemistry between Calamai and Girotti; all of Cain’s descriptions of burning flesh and animal lust are rendered in Ossessione with an almost frightening intensity. Consequently, the whole economic imperative for the eventual murder takes somewhat of a backseat here. Visconti also doesn’t avoid the obviously homoerotic overtones of Gino’s relationship with “lo Spagnolo” (Elio Marcuzzo), a Spanish street performer with whom he goes on the road for a while, rather remarkable when one considers the film was made under the Fascist regime.

One scene that surely would have delighted Cain, himself the son of an opera singer, is the local opera competition in which Bragana performs. A gruff and somewhat unapproachable figure—a far cry from Cecil Kellaway’s bumbling fool in Tay Garnett’s 1946 Hollywood version of the novel—he suddenly comes alive as he bursts into an aria, with a final flourish that brings the assembled listeners to their feet. Ossessione could have been the great example of the union of American film noir and Italian Neorealism; instead it remains something like the ancestral missing link for both movements. RP

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MEET ME IN ST. LOUIS (1944)

U.S. (MGM) 113m Technicolor

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Producer: Roger Edens, Arthur Freed

Screenplay: Irving Brecher, Fred F. Finklehoffe, from novel by Sally Benson

Photography: George J. Folsey

Music: Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin, Nacio Herb Brown, Arthur Freed, George E. Stoll

Cast: Judy Garland, Margaret O’Brien, Mary Astor, Lucille Bremer, Leon Ames, Tom Drake, Marjorie Main, Harry Davenport, June Lockhart, Henry H. Daniels Jr., Joan Carroll, Hugh Marlowe, Robert Sully, Chill Wills, Gary Gray, Dorothy Raye

Oscar nominations: Irving Brecher, Fred F. Finklehoffe (screenplay), George J. Folsey (photography), George E. Stoll (music), Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin (song)

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A little girl named Tootie (Margaret O’Brien), crying and angry, breaks domestic rank and runs out to the snow. Once there, she sets to destroying her beloved snowmen—a symbol of everything that is stable and reassuring in her familial existence—with a vigor and venom that is extremely disquieting. Who would ever have thought that Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” could have such a devastating effect on a child’s delicate psyche—or, indeed, on ours?

Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis is one of the most unusual and highly charged musicals in Hollywood history. It blends the two genres at which Minnelli was most adept—musical and melodrama—and even, in its darkest moments (such as a sequence devoted to Halloween terrors), edges toward being a horror movie. It is also a film that, then as now, offers itself up to be read in starkly contrasting ways: either as a perfectly innocent and naïve celebration of traditional family values, or else a brooding meditation on everything that tears the family unit apart from within. Put another way, is it comforting, “safety valve” entertainment that admits to just enough that is problematic in order to smooth out and reinforce the status quo, or is it—almost despite itself—a subversive gesture at the heart of the Hollywood system, a howl of unrepressed rage like Tootie’s slaughter of imaginary snow people?

Yes, this is the same film in which Garland moons and croons “The Boy Next Door” and—in a showstopping highlight—sways with a pack of colorful passengers as she belts out “The Trolley Song” (“Zing, zing, zing went my heartstrings....”). Minnelli’s project is quietly ambitious: not merely to tell the story of a lovably “average” family—and the challenges it stoically faces—but to also sketch the history of a bold new twentieth-century society defined by events such as the World’s Fair.

Minnelli’s artistic sensibility—his sexuality is either an open question or an open secret, depending on which Hollywood history you consult–responded well to female yearning and male anxiety, and an excess of both makes this musical unfailingly melodramatic. Patriarchy comes in the cuddly, grumpy form of Leon Ames, valiantly trying to assert his authority in the face of an overwhelmingly female household. The parade of boyfriends for the girls have likewise to be prodded, manipulated, and informed of their rightful, mating destiny.

As for the aesthetic challenges of the musical, Minnelli and his collaborators went a long way toward integrating singing and dancing into a whimsical, fairy tale flow of incidents. Songs begin as throwaway phrases, spoken or hummed out in the street or at the door; they suddenly die away as a plot intrigue kicks in. Beneath the elegant display of filmic style, and the civilized veneer of manners, it is only Tootie who can express emotions that are savage and untamed—as her “exotica” duet with Judy, “Under the Bamboo Tree,” jovially indicates. AM

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1940s




TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 100m BW

Director: Howard Hawks

Producer: Howard Hawks, Jack L. Warner

Screenplay: Jules Furthman, from novel by Ernest Hemingway

Photography: Sidney Hickox

Music: Hoagy Carmichael, William Lava, Franz Waxman

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Brennan, Lauren Bacall, Dolores Moran, Hoagy Carmichael, Sheldon Leonard, Walter Szurovy, Marcel Dalio, Walter Sande, Dan Seymour, Aldo Nadi

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Coscripted by two Nobel Prize-winners, Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, allegedly from Hemingway’s book of the same title, To Have and Have Not was mainly improvised by director Howard Hawks and his peerless cast. One of a run of films made after Humphrey Bogart’s triumph in Casablanca (1942), this even more romantic picture offers a central love affair that threatens to edge World War II offscreen. Hawks, who discovered Lauren Bacall before Bogart did, eventually felt betrayed by his stars’ marriage, but he also in great part created the characters the couple wound up playing in real life.

Set in Vichy, Martinique, as opposed to the novel’s Cuba, To Have and Have Not once again has Bogart’s Yankee ex-pat caught up with the Free French and finally committing to the allied cause. The real-life electricity sparking between Bogie and a debuting Bacall, as the girl who drifts into his life and takes over, leads to a sassy, upbeat ending that sends you home with a greater glow even than the wistful resignation of Casablanca. Unlike Rick (Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) in the earlier film, who choose the greater good over love, Harry and Slim rescue each other from isolationism and are able to maintain their relationship because they are willing to work together to win the war. Hawks would have no patience with a woman who saw her job solely in terms of making a happy home life for the hero and so makes Bacall’s Slim as intrepid and daring as Bogart’s Harry—not just a love interest, but a partner.

Hawks packs every scene in To Have and Have Not with relishable business: hilarious but sexy love talk between the stars (“You do know how to whistle?”); comedy relief sidekick Walter Brennan asking, “Was you ever stung by a dead bee?”; Hoagy Carmichael singing “Hong Kong Blues” and accompanying a husky Bacall (or is it Andy Williams’s voice?) on “How Little We Know?”; and Bogie snarling at various petty officials and nasty fascists with the genuine voice of a democratic wiseguy who won’t put up with any totalitarian nonsense. When John Huston didn’t have an ending for his 1948 Bogart-Bacall thriller Key Largo, Hawks gave him the shootout-on-a-boat finish of Hemingway’s novel that he had never got around to including in this film. KN

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1940s




LAURA (1944)

U.S. (Fox) 88m BW

Director: Otto Preminger, Rouben Mamoulian

Producer: Otto Preminger

Screenplay: Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth Reinhardt, from novel by Vera Caspary

Photography: Joseph LaShelle, Lucien Ballard

Music: David Raksin

Cast: Gene Tierney, Dana Andrews, Clifton Webb, Vincent Price, Judith Anderson, Cy Kendall, Grant Mitchell

Oscar: Joseph LaShelle (photography)

Oscar nominations: Clifton Webb (actor in support role), Otto Preminger (director), Jay Dratler, Samuel Hoffenstein, Elizabeth Reinhardt (screenplay), Lyle R. Wheeler, Leland Fuller, Thomas Little (art direction)

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Men adore her. Women admire her. Yet alluring young designer Laura Hunt (Gene Tierney) doesn’t take center stage in Laura, any more than her chilly socialite friend Ann (Judith Anderson), her duplicitous suitor Shelby (Vincent Price), or hardboiled detective Mark McPherson (Dana Andrews), who, searching for her murderer, falls in love with her ghost. But viciously smarmy author-broadcaster Waldo Lydecker (Clifton Webb) utterly fascinates, adopting Laura as his protégée, making her famous, then fixating upon her life like a spider who has her in its web.

If Otto Preminger’s Laura intrigues in its jarring mélange of styles—noir psychodrama, melodrama, and crime thriller—then in brief moments of portraiture it becomes monumental. Particularly notable scenes include Ann explaining to Laura why it should be she who has Shelby (“We’re both losers”) and the romantic tryst at the police station when, turning off the glaring third-degree lights, Mark sees Laura’s true radiance. But paramount is Lydecker’s poisonous poise when he regales Laura with Shelby’s faults. “I’ll call him,” she says anxiously. “He’s not there,” Waldo acidly retorts, “He’s dining with Ann, didn’t you know?” More than doting upon her life, he is inhabiting it, perhaps narrative cinema’s first example of a man who wishes he were a woman. MP

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1940s




GASLIGHT (1944)

U.S. (MGM) 114m BW

Director: George Cukor

Producer: Arthur Hornblow Jr.

Screenplay: John Van Druten, Walter Reisch, John L. Balderston, from the play Angel Street by Patrick Hamilton

Photography: Joseph Ruttenberg

Music: Bronislau Kaper

Cast: Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotten, Dame May Whitty, Angela Lansbury, Barbara Everest, Emil Rameau, Edmund Breon, Halliwell Hobbes, Tom Stevenson, Heather Thatcher, Lawrence Grossmith

Oscars: Ingrid Bergman (actress), Cedric Gibbons, William Ferrari, Edwin B. Willis, Paul Huldschinsky (art direction)

Oscar nominations: Arthur Hornblow Jr. (best picture), John L. Balderston, Walter Reisch, John Van Druten (screenplay), Charles Boyer (actor), Angela Lansbury (actress in support role), Joseph Ruttenberg (photography)

George Cukor’s Hollywood version of an earlier British gothic romance is heavy on threatening atmosphere, with a spine-chilling thriller plot. Paula Alquist (Ingrid Bergman) finds herself wooed by the attractive, if strangely possessive, Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer), who seems more interested in the London house Paula owns than in the rather timid woman herself. It turns out that Anton is a clever thief who, some ten years before, had killed Paula’s aunt in a failed attempt to steal her fabulously valuable jewels. As he systematically ransacks Paula’s house by night, he does his best to convince her, and others, that she is losing her mind. His intention is to put her entirely under his power so that he can have a free hand searching the house. Anton’s plot, however, is discovered by Brian Cameron (Joseph Cotten), who, falling in love with the woman he sees mistreated and threatened, intervenes just in time to save her from worse.

While Gaslight’s plot is somewhat thin, Cukor draws fine performances from an ensemble cast, including newcomer Angela Lansbury as a saucy servant who, like everything and everyone else in the house, seems to be plotting against its ostensible mistress. With its evocation of persecution and paranoia, Gaslight makes an elegant period-piece companion to the film noir series then featured by Hollywood. RBP

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1940s




HENRY V (1944)

G.B. (Two Cities) 135m Technicolor

Language: English / French

Director: Laurence Olivier

Producer: Dallas Bower, Filippo Del Giudice, Laurence Olivier

Screenplay: Dallas Bower, Alan Dent, from play by William Shakespeare

Photography: Jack Hildyard, Robert Krasker

Music: William Walton

Cast: Felix Aylmer, Leslie Banks, Robert Helpmann, Vernon Greeves, Gerald Case, Griffith Jones, Morland Graham, Nicholas Hannen, Michael Warre, Laurence Olivier, Ralph Truman, Ernest Thesiger, Roy Emerton, Robert Newton, Freda Jackson

Oscar: Laurence Olivier (honorary award)

Oscar nominations: Laurence Olivier (best picture), Laurence Olivier (actor), Paul Sheriff, Carmen Dillon (art direction), William Walton (music)

Henry V was regarded by the British government as ideal patriotic wartime propaganda, and Laurence Olivier, serving in the Fleet Air Arm, was released to star in it and—after William Wyler had turned it down—to direct it as well. Aiming to preserve both Shakespeare’s innately theatrical artifice and the soaring, protocinematic sweep of his imagination, Olivier hit on the device of framing the film within a production in the Globe Theatre itself. As Henry V opens, the camera soars over a superbly detailed miniature of Elizabethan London, down into the bustle and bawdy of the Globe audience, and into a high-flown stage performance—only to expand exhilaratingly into cinematic space as the action moves toward France.

Throughout, the film plays with different levels of stylization, from the scenes at the French court—which borrow the exquisite colors and naive perspectives of medieval miniature paintings—to the realism of the battle scenes, inspired in their exuberant dynamism by Sergei Eisenstein’s Aleksandr Nevsky (1938). The rhythm of Shakespeare’s text, discreetly trimmed to fit the war effort—the three English traitors are dropped, for a start—is buoyed up by the vigor of Olivier’s barnstorming performance and William Walton’s sweeping score. Henry V is the first Shakespeare film that succeeds in being at once truly Shakespearean and wholly cinematic. PK

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1940s




IVAN THE TERRIBLE, PARTS ONE AND TWO (1944)

IVAN GROZNYJ I i II

U.S.S.R. (Alma Ata) 100m BW

Language: Russian

Director: Sergei M. Eisenstein

Producer: Sergei M. Eisenstein

Screenplay: Sergei M. Eisenstein

Photography: Andrei Moskvin, Eduard Tisse

Music: Sergei Prokofiev

Cast: Nikolai Cherkasov, Lyudmila Tselikovskaya, Serafima Birman, Mikhail Nazvanov, Mikhail Zharov, Amvrosi Buchma, Mikhail Kuznetsov, Pavel Kadochnikov, Andrei Abrikosov, Aleksandr Mgebrov, Maksim Mikhajlov, Vsevolod Pudovkin

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Sergei Eisenstein is one of those names that inevitably appear when studying film theory and aesthetics. Particularly famous for his dramatic sequence of the Odessa steps in The Battleship Potemkin (1925), the Russian director offers further proof of his immense talent with Ivan the Terrible. This epic movie narrates the life of the despotic Czar and was originally conceived as a trilogy, the filming for which began in the early 1940s upon Stalin’s request. Eisenstein could only complete parts I and II, however, because of his premature death. Part I came out in 1945, whereas Part II underwent governmental censorship: Stalin saw in Ivan the Terrible a critique of his own despotism and banned the movie. Part II was finally released in 1958 after both Eisenstein’s and Stalin’s deaths.

Ivan the Terrible recounts the rise and fall of one of Russia’s most famous Czars, Ivan IV, responsible for the unification of the country in the late Middle Ages. The first film opens with Ivan’s (Nikolai Cherkasov) coronation and his intention to defeat the Boyars. Part I focuses on Ivan’s establishment of power and shows the favor of the peasants. Part II narrates the machinations of the Boyars in their attempt to assassinate Ivan and reveals the progressive cruelty of the Czar, who creates his own police to keep the country under control. Ivan discovers the plots against him and defeats his enemies by killing them. The acting is particularly staged: Eisenstein makes strong use of extreme close-ups and seems more interested with the characters’ reaction to the events than with the events themselves. In Part II, a curiosity can be found in the use of two color scenes in a movie that is mostly black and white.

Alexander Nevsky (1938) and Ivan the Terrible are Eisenstein’s only non-silent films. If one compares the latter to the silent movies he directed in the 1920s, not only can a change in style be detected, due primarily to the coming of sound, but also a change in the very themes narrated. Eisenstein here renounces the depiction of the proletarian struggles at the heart of his previous films, turning instead to an epic story, one connected to a “safe” past that does not involve manifest critiques of contemporary political events. CFe

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1940s




DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944)

U.S. (Paramount) 107m BW

Director: Billy Wilder

Producer: Joseph Sistrom

Screenplay: Billy Wilder, Raymond Chandler, from the novel Double Indemnity in Three of a Kind by James M. Cain

Photography: John F. Seitz

Music: Miklós Rózsa

Cast: Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall, Jean Heather, Tom Powers, Byron Barr, Richard Gaines, Fortunio Bonanova, John Philliber

Oscar nominations: Joseph Sistrom (best picture), Billy Wilder (director), Raymond Chandler, Billy Wilder (screenplay), Barbara Stanwyck (actress), John F. Seitz (photography), Miklós Rózsa (music), Loren L. Ryder (sound)

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Adapted by director Billy Wilder and author Raymond Chandler from the hard-boiled novel by James M. Cain, Double Indemnity is the archetypal film noir, the tale of a desperate dame and a greedy man, of murder for sordid profit and sudden, violent betrayal. Yet it has a weird, evocative romanticism (“How could I have known that murder can sometimes smell like honeysuckle?”) and pays off, extraordinarily for 1944, with a confession not only of murder but also of love between two men. The last line, addressed by dying Fred MacMurray to heartbroken Edward G. Robinson, is “I love you, too.”

A wounded man staggers by night into a Los Angeles insurance company office, and settles down at his desk to dictate confessional notes on “the Dietrichson claim.” He introduces himself as “Walter Neff, insurance salesman, thirty-five years old, unmarried, no visible scars—until a while ago, that is.” MacMurray spent his whole career, first at Paramount then at Disney and finally in sitcoms, as a genial nice guy, always smiling, always folksy; twice (his other change-of-pace, also for Wilder, is The Apartment) he crawled behind his smile and marvelously played a complete heel, his cleft chin sweaty and in need of a shave, his smooth salesman’s talk a cover for lechery, larceny, and murderous intent. The bait that tempts this average nobody off the straight and narrow comes fresh from a sunbath, barely wrapped in a towel, flashing an ankle bracelet. Calling at a fake Spanish mansion on Los Feliz Boulevard about an auto policy renewal, Neff encounters Mrs. Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck) and can’t resist putting verbal moves on her. Neff backs off when she innocently asks if it’s possible to insure her older husband (Tom Powers) against accidental death without him knowing about it. Neff mulls it over and, after an embrace in his apartment, agrees to pitch in with the murder plan.

The couple trick Mr. D into signing up for a policy that pays off double if death occurs on a train, then arrange it so his broken-necked corpse is found on the railroad tracks. Enter Barton Keyes (Robinson), a claims investigator of Columbo-like tenacity whose only blind spot is his devotion to Neff. Keyes fusses around the case, ruling out suicide in a brilliant speech about the unlikeliness of suicide by jumping from a train, homing in on the gamey blonde as a murderess, and rooting around for her partner in crime. Keyes doesn’t even have to do much work, because postkilling pressures are already splitting Neff and Phyllis apart, as they try not to panic during meets in a local supermarket and come to suspect each other of additional double crosses. In that stifling, shadowed mansion, with “Tangerine” on the radio and honeysuckle in the air, the lovers riddle each other with bullets, and Neff staggers away to confess. Keyes joins him in the office and sadly catches the end of the story. Neff asks for four hours so he can head for Mexico, but Keyes knows, “You’ll never make the border. You’ll never even make the elevator.” KN

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1940s




MURDER, MY SWEET (1944)

FAREWELL, MY LOVELY

U.S. (RKO) 95m BW

Director: Edward Dmytryk

Producer: Sid Rogell, Adrian Scott

Screenplay: John Paxton, from the novel Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler

Photography: Harry J. Wild

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Dick Powell, Claire Trevor, Anne Shirley, Otto Kruger, Mike Mazurki, Miles Mander, Douglas Walton, Donald Douglas, Ralf Harolde, Esther Howard

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The first screen adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s second novel Farewell, My Lovely was The Falcon Takes Over, a 1942 quickie in which Chandler’s private eye Philip Marlowe was replaced by George Sanders’s gentleman sleuth. When Chandler’s reputation rose, RKO found it no longer had to pay for the film rights to mount this more faithful adaptation, in which ex-crooner Dick Powell surprised audiences with his wry toughness and bruised romanticism as the first proper screen incarnation of Marlowe. The title change came about because it was assumed that audiences would mistake it for a schmaltzy wartime romance, though the novel’s title was retained in Britain, where Chandler was already a respected figure.

The book was one of several Marlowe novels Chandler wrought by cannibalizing several earlier, cruder novellas, which explains why it has several plot threads that turn out to intersect via the odd, unlikely coincidence. Murder, My Sweet opens with Marlowe blinded and interrogated by the cops, allowing for the retention of much of Chandler’s first-person commentary, as flashbacks take the hero through a puzzle that begins with ex-con “Moose” Malloy (Mike Mazurki) hiring Marlowe to track down the ex-girlfriend who sold him out but with whom he is still smitten. The story takes a left turn when he is also retained by slinky society vamp Helen Grayle (Claire Trevor) to get back some stolen jade and see off a blackmailing “psychic consultant” (Otto Kruger).

No other film so perfectly encapsulates the pleasures of film noir, as director Edward Dmytryk deploys shadows, rain, drug-induced hallucinations (“a black pool opened up”), and sudden bursts of violence within a cobweb of plot traps, slimy master crooks, worthless femmes fatales, gorilla-brained thugs, weary cops, and quack doctors. Powell’s Marlowe, striking a match on Cupid’s marble bottom and playing hopscotch on the tiled floor of a millionaire’s mansion, is closer to Chandler’s tone of boyish insolence than better-known readings of the role by Humphrey Bogart or Robert Mitchum. As always with Chandler, the villain turns out to be the strongest woman in the plot: Moose’s tarty Velma and the silken murderess Helen are revealed to be the same person. KN

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1940s




THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO (1945)

U.S. (U.S. Army) 33m BW

Director: John Huston

Producer: Frank Capra

Screenplay: John Huston

Photography: Jules Buck

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Cast: John Huston (narrator)

Made for the U.S. Army as a propaganda film, John Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro remains the best war documentary ever made, despite changes made to remove some material thought too disturbing for civilian viewers. The picture details the taking of an Italian hill town from tenacious and well-entrenched German defenders, a battle that cost American units more than a thousand casualties.

While the inconclusiveness of the struggle implicitly indicts a flawed American strategy (despite the director’s flag-waving voice-over), Huston’s main purpose was to portray the experience of war seen from the viewpoint of those who fight it and have no concern about larger calculations of loss or gain. Huston’s crew captures the horror and confusion of combat: the wounding of American soldiers; the pain and suffering of civilians; the boredom and campaigning for troops far from home; the inevitable cost of “victory,” measured in the huge number of body bags loaded onto trucks; and the rows and rows of temporary graves dug to accommodate them.

The film was eventually released to the American public only after final victory in Europe, too late to play any role in influencing opinion about the war. The Battle of San Pietro is Huston’s tribute to the brave men he lived among, as well as a poignant, graphic treatment of battle and its consequences, with some stock footage and staged scenes not detracting from the overall effect of authenticity and objectivity. RBP

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1940s




SPELLBOUND (1945)

U.S. (Selznick) 111m BW

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Producer: David O. Selznick

Screenplay: Angus MacPhail, Ben Hecht

Photography: George Barnes

Music: Miklós Rózsa

Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Gregory Peck, Michael Chekhov, Leo G. Carroll, John Emery, Steven Geray, Paul Harvey, Donald Curtis, Rhonda Fleming, Norman Lloyd, Wallace Ford, Bill Goodwin, Art Baker, Regis Toomey, Irving Bacon

Oscar: Miklós Rózsa (music)

Oscar nominations: David O. Selznick (best picture), Alfred Hitchcock (director), Michael Chekhov (actor in support role), George Barnes (photography), Jack Cosgrove (special effects)

Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound presents an intriguing and promising puzzle of a plot. Amnesiac Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck), realizing he’s not who thinks he is, enlists Dr. Constance Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) to help discover his actual identity, as well as the fate of the person he’s apparently impersonating. But fascinated by the novelty of psychoanalysis, Spellbound spends a little too much time focusing on the subconscious and not quite enough time focusing on actual suspense. It’s one of Hitchcock’s more interesting “failures,” notable for its acting, production design, and music but not especially for the central mystery.

Regardless, a savvy Hitchcock smartly (and with more than a little modest deference) enlisted surrealist artist Salvador Dalí to design the film’s famous dream sequences, envisioned by Peck while under hypnosis, and those haunting, hallucinatory visions of card games, eyes, and strange landscapes remain justly lauded as mini works of art in and of themselves. Equally pioneering was Miklós Rózsa’s Oscar-winning score, the first to incorporate the electronic hum of the theremin, whose eerie, wavering tone became a keystone of many genre films. Even if Ben Hecht’s screenplay indulges in a little too much meandering psychobabble, Spellbound did serve to introduce Hitchcock’s increasingly literal interest in the subconscious. JKl

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1940s




MILDRED PIERCE (1945)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 111m BW

Director: Michael Curtiz

Producer: Jerry Wald, Jack L. Warner

Screenplay: Ranald MacDougall, from novel by James M. Cain

Photography: Ernest Haller

Music: Max Steiner

Cast: Joan Crawford, Jack Carson, Zachary Scott, Eve Arden, Ann Blyth, Bruce Bennett, Lee Patrick, Moroni Olsen, Veda Ann Borg, Jo Ann Marlowe

Oscar: Joan Crawford (actress)

Oscar nominations: Jerry Wald (best picture), Ranald MacDougall (screenplay), Eve Arden (actress in support role), Ann Blyth (actress in support role), Ernest Haller (photography)

Steven jay schneider

Gunshots crack in the night and a dying man gasps “Mildred!” In a flashback classic that goes back to the genesis of obsession and murder, the minkclad confessor Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford in the Oscar-winning role that revived the forty-one-year-old fading star’s stalled career) explains in a police interrogation how she toiled her way from housewife, waitress, and pie baker to prosperous restaurateur in order to fulfill her daughter Veda’s (Ann Blyth) demands for the finer things. When they are both fatefully drawn in by a smooth, duplicitous cad (Zachary Scott), the possessive Mildred’s smothering, neurotic indulgence and the ungrateful Veda’s precocious appetites inevitably boil over in sexual betrayal and rage.

A definitive 1940s women’s picture and a seething domestic soap opera, Michael Curtiz’s film, adapted by Ranald MacDougall from a breathtakingly perverse novel by James M. Cain (of Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice fame), is also a superbly nasty noir, one that plays havoc with the era’s ideals of maternal devotion and mom’s apple pie. Mildred is admirable for her hard work and self-sacrifice. She is smart, ambitious, and driven, qualities respected and rewarded in the American ethic. But gradually, as she detaches from her decent but unsuccessful husband (Bruce Bennett), and as she favors the insolent Veda over her sweeter younger daughter, putting the child’s death behind her with no evident afterthought, we begin to sense an unhealthy, even pathological, aspect to Mildred’s compulsion.

Throbbing melodrama doesn’t come with more conviction. Even to those usually turned off by the tough, square-shouldered Crawford, her intense, no-holds-barred performance as Mildred is tragically twisted and compelling. Blyth, only seventeen, is sneeringly sensational as the disdainful femme fatale. A director who imposed his personality on films in every genre, Curtiz’s masterly deployment of his actors (sterling support players such as Eve Arden, Jack Carson, and Lee Patrick) and the disparate technical elements-Gone with the Wind’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Ernest Haller’s expressive shifts from sunny suburbia to shadowy nightmare, and Max Steiner’s dramatic score-are intoxicating. AE

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1940s




LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS (1945)

THE CHILDREN OF PARADISE

France (Pathé) 190m BW

Language: French

Director: Marcel Carné

Producer: Raymond Borderie, Fred Orain

Screenplay: Jacques Prévert

Photography: Marc Fossard, Roger Hubert

Music: Joseph Kosma, Maurice Thiriet

Cast: Arletty, Jean-Louis Barrault, Pierre Brasseur, Pierre Renoir, María Casares, Gaston Modot, Fabien Loris, Marcel Pérès, Palau, Etienne Decroux, Jane Marken, Marcelle Monthil, Louis Florencie, Habib Benglia, Rognoni

Oscar nomination: Jacques Prévert (screenplay)

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Ever since its triumphant premiere in the newly liberated France of 1945, The Children of Paradise has maintained its place as one of the greatest French films of all time. It represents the high point of the genre often called “poetic realism” (though “pessimistic romanticism” might be a more apt term) and also of the partnership that perfected that genre—that of screenwriter Jacques Prévert and director Marcel Carné. They made an oddly assorted couple: Prévert gregarious, passionate, highly committed politically, one of the finest popular French poets of the century; Carné remote, fastidious, withdrawn, a cool perfectionist. Yet together they created cinematic magic that neither man could equal after they parted. The Children of Paradise was their last great success.

The film was some eighteen months in production and involved building the largest studio set in the history of French cinema—the quarter-mile of street frontage, reproduced in scrupulous detail, representing the “Boulevard du Crime,” the theater district of Paris in the 1830s and 1840s. This would have been a daunting enterprise at the best of times; in wartime France, under the conditions of the Occupation, it was little short of heroic. Transport, materials, costumes, and film stock were all scarce. The Italian coproducers pulled out when Italy capitulated. The original French producer had to withdraw when he came under investigation by the Nazis. One lead actor, a prominent pro-Nazi, fled to Germany after D-Day and had to be replaced at the last minute. Alexandre Trauner, the brilliant set designer, and the composer Joseph Kosma, who were both Jewish, were obliged to work in hiding and transmit their ideas through intermediaries.

Despite all this, Children is a consummate achievement with all the richness and complexity of a great nineteenth-century novel. The crowd scenes set in the bustling, gaudy boulevard deploy their 1,500 extras in riotous profusion, cramming every corner of the screen with lively detail. A defiant affirmation of French theatrical culture at a time when the nation was conquered and occupied, the film offers a multilayered meditation on the nature of masquerade, fantasy, and representation. All dialogue is heightened, all actions masterfully staged. The three lead male characters are all performers—Lemaître, the great romantic actor (Pierre Brasseur); Debureau, the supreme mime artiste (Jean-Louis Barrault); and Lacenaire, the failed playwright turned dandyish master criminal (Marcel Herrand). All are real historical personages. The woman they all love, the grande horizontale Garance (Arletty in her greatest screen role), is fiction—less a real woman than an icon of the eternal feminine, elusive and infinitely desirable.

Though it runs over three hours, Children never seems a minute too long. A celebration of theater as the great popular art of the nineteenth century (as cinema was of the twentieth), it mixes farce, romance, melodrama, and tragedy in an overwhelming narrative sweep. Carné was above all a supreme director of actors, and the film offers a feast of great French screen acting, along with wit, grace, passion, and an all-pervading sense of transience—the melancholy that underlies all Romantic art. PK

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1940s




ROMA, CITTÀ APERTA (1945)

OPEN CITY

Italy (Excelsa, Minerva) 100m BW

Language: Italian / German

Director: Roberto Rossellini

Producer: Giuseppe Amato, Ferruccio De Martino, Roberto Rossellini

Photography: Ubaldo Arata

Screenplay: Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini

Music: Renzo Rossellini

Cast: Aldo Fabrizi, Anna Magnani, Marcello Pagliero, Maria Michi, Harry Feist

Oscar nomination: Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini (screenplay)

Cannes Film Festival: Roberto Rossellini (Grand Prize of the Festival)

Steven jay schneider

Considered the initiator of an aesthetic revolution in film, Roberto Rossellini’s Open City was the first major work of Italian Neorealism, and it managed to explode the conventions of the Mussolinian “cinema of white telephones” that was fashionable in Italy at the beginning of the 1940s. This film about the Italian Resistance was scripted in the days of the underground battle against the Nazis. Recalling Sergei Eisenstein’s formula of the “choral film,” it tells of a group of patriots hiding in the apartment of a lithographer named Francesco (Francesco Grandjaquet). The communist who leads the group, Manfredi (Marcello Pagliero), is chased by the Gestapo, and is finally captured and executed. Francesco’s wife Pina (Anna Magnani) and a sympathetic priest, Don Pietro (Aldo Fabrizi), die, too, trying to help Manfredi escape. But it is the solidarity of Rome as a city that anticipates a final victory against the invaders.

The scarcity of technical and financial resources available to Rossellini proved to be a virtue of Open City, which was shot in a documentary style. Showing real people in real locations, the film brought some fresh air to the existing Western cinema. The freedom of the camera movements and the authenticity of the characters, allied to a new way of storytelling, were among the qualities that made Open City the revelation of the 1946 Cannes Film Festival, where it was awarded the Palme d’Or. Neorealism quickly became an aesthetic model for directors interested in a vivid description of history and society.

One of the most amazing things about Open City is the approach Rossellini takes to each character’s drama. Some of the film’s heroes will forever remain in the hearts of viewers. Who can forget the sight of a pregnant Pina running through bullets or the kind priest shot before the frightened eyes of the children? Although it may veer toward the melodramatic, the story is just as moving today as it was then. And it should come as no surprise to learn that, after this role, Magnani became one of the greatest actresses of the Italian screen. DD

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1940s




THE LOST WEEKEND (1945)

U.S. (Paramount) 101m BW

Director: Billy Wilder

Producer: Charles Brackett

Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, from novel by Charles R. Jackson

Photography: John F. Seitz

Music: Miklós Rózsa

Cast: Ray Milland, Jane Wyman, Phillip Terry, Howard Da Silva, Doris Dowling, Frank Faylen, Mary Young, Anita Sharp-Bolster, Lillian Fontaine, Frank Orth, Lewis L. Russell, Clarence Muse

Oscars: Charles Brackett (best picture), Billy Wilder (director), Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder (screenplay), Ray Milland (actor)

Oscar nominations: John F. Seitz (photography), Doane Harrison (editing), Miklós Rózsa (music)

Cannes Film Festival: Billy Wilder (Grand Prize of the Festival), Ray Milland (actor)

Steven jay schneider

Before The Lost Weekend, drunkards in Hollywood movies were mostly figures of fun, indeed of farce—lovable buffoons reeling around uttering slurred witticisms and making hopeless passes at pretty girls. Billy Wilder and his regular coscreenwriter, Charles Brackett, dared to do something different, creating American cinema’s first adult, intelligent, unsparing look at the grim degradation of alcoholism. Even today, some of the scenes are almost too painful to watch.

Ray Milland, in a career-defining role that netted him an Oscar, plays a New York writer, Don Birnam, struggling with and finally succumbing to his craving over the space of one long, parched summer weekend in the city. Just as he had done with Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity (1944), Wilder ferrets out and avidly exploits the insecurity behind Milland’s bland screen persona. Rather than letting us stand back and judge in detached compassion, Wilder pulls us along with Birnam on his downward trajectory. We’re obliged to accompany him as he sheds all his remaining moral scruples, showing himself ready to lie, cheat, and steal to get money for drink, until with awful inevitability he ends up in the hell of a public hospital’s alcoholics ward, screaming in horror at the hallucinations of delirium tremens.

Parts of the film were shot on Manhattan locations, and Wilder makes the most of the dry, sun-bleached streets, shot by his director of photography John F. Seitz to look bleak and tawdry, as if through Birnam’s bleary, self-loathing gaze. In one unforgettable sequence, the writer, reduced to trying to hock his typewriter to raise funds for booze, traipses the dusty length of Third Avenue dragging the heavy machine—only to realize that it’s Yom Kippur and all the pawnshops are closed. Even more harrowing is the scene in a smart nightclub where Birman succumbs to temptation and tries to filch money from a woman’s handbag—only to be caught and humiliatingly thrown out while the club pianist leads the clientele in a chorus of “Somebody stole her purse” (to the tune of “Somebody Stole My Gal”). And Miklós Rózsa’s score makes masterly use of the theremin, that early electronic instrument whose eerie, swooping tone perfectly conjures up Birnam’s woozy, out-of-control vision of the world.

The strictures of the Hays Code imposed a happy ending, though Wilder and Brackett managed to sidestep anything too mindlessly reassuring. Even so, Paramount was convinced the movie was doomed to failure, with an alarmed liquor industry offering the studio $5 million to bury the film altogether. Prohibitionists, on the other hand, were up in arms, claiming the film would encourage drinking. In any event, The Lost Weekend was a major critical and commercial hit. “It was after this picture,” Wilder noted, “that people started taking me seriously.” No subsequent film on alcoholism, or any other form of addiction, has been able to avoid a nod to The Lost Weekend. PK

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1940s




DETOUR (1945)

U.S. (PRC) 67m BW

Director: Edgar G. Ulmer

Producer: Leon Fromkess, Martin Mooney

Screenplay: Martin Goldsmith, from his novel

Photography: Benjam H. Kline

Music: Leo Erdody, Clarence Gaskill, Jimmy McHugh

Cast: Tom Neal, Ann Savage, Claudia Drake, Edmund MacDonald, Tim Ryan, Esther Howard, Pat Gleason

“Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or me for no good reason at all.” One of the greatest of all B-movies, Detour makes no attempt to rise above its budget and brief shooting schedule, instead reveling in its cheapness, presenting a world somewhere between pulp fiction and existentialism where life has low production values and a short running time.

A grubby Jazz musician (Tom Neal) hitchhikes across country, descending into an on-the-road hell as a driver drops dead, incriminating him. He hooks up with a trampy woman (Ann Savage) who leads him to degradation and murder, climaxing in an unforgettable tussle in a tawdry motel room in which a telephone cord gets tangled up around the woman’s neck.

Edgar G. Ulmer, a German Expressionist toiling along Poverty Row, was a more pretentious filmmaker than his admirers will admit, but this is the one genuine masterpiece from his time in the Z-trenches. The unknown stars (real-life loser Neal later did time for murder) are resolutely unglamorous, and the studio sets, anonymous roadsides, and back-projected landscapes conjure up a world spiraling out of control—one where the coincidence-driven plotting of a thrown-together B-picture script can suggest the malign hand of merciless destiny. KN

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1940s




I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING! (1945)

G.B. (Rank, The Archers) 92m BW

Language: English / Gaelic

Director: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Producer: George R. Busby, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Screenplay: Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Photography: Erwin Hillier

Music: Allan Gray

Cast: Wendy Hiller, Roger Livesey, George Carney, Pamela Brown, Walter Hudd, Captain Duncan MacKenzie, Ian Sadler, Finlay Currie, Murdo Morrison, Margot Fitzsimmons, Captain C.W.R. Knight, Donald Strachan, John Rae, Duncan Mclntyre, Jean Cadell

I Know Where I’m Going! stands tall as one of the most perfect of the run of delirious masterpieces made by the team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger in the 1940s. Joan Webster (Wendy Hiller), very sexy in smart suits, is the practical postwar English miss who travels to the Hebrides to marry a millionaire old enough to be her father. But she finds her determined gold-digging sidetracked by an island-load of strange Scots who arrange for her to be diverted into the arms of her predestined lover Torquil MacNeil (Roger Livesey), the local penniless squire and war hero.

Aside from being the only filmmakers who could get away with naming a romantic hero “Torquil,” Powell and Pressburger go against the cynical vision of conniving, drunken Scots islanders found in Ealing Studio’s 1949 Whisky Galore!, presenting a crew who are just as devious but working for good ends. Joan’s urban toughness is quickly overwhelmed with lots of Celtic legend involving the local whirlpool, which represents the gods and allows for an exciting rescue-at-sea finale. In a large supporting cast, Pamela Brown is especially memorable as the spookily alluring local girl, Catriona Potts. KN

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1940s




BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945)

G.B. (Cineguild, Rank) 86m BW

Director: David Lean

Producer: Noel Coward, Anthony Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame

Screenplay: Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, from the play Still Life by Noel Coward

Photography: Robert Krasker

Music: Rachmaninov

Cast: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey, Cyril Raymond, Everley Gregg, Marjorie Mars

Oscar nominations: David Lean (director), Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Ronald Neame (screenplay), Celia Johnson (actress)

Cannes Film Festival: David Lean (Grand Prize of the Festival)

Steven jay schneider

The imposing epics of David Lean’s later years sometimes threaten to overshadow the director’s relatively modest early works, but to focus too much on the sheer spectacle of Lawrence of Arabia or Doctor Zhivago would be to overlook some of Lean’s greatest accomplishments. After all, only a filmmaker of the highest order could direct Lawrence of Arabia, and that same mastery of the form is on display in Lean’s formative films, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Lean had already directed three adaptations of Noel Coward’s work when he began Brief Encounter, based on Coward’s one-act play Still Life. But the play’s brevity forced Lean to expand the material, and in the process he expanded his own film vocabulary as well. Told in flashback, Brief Encounter follows the platonic love affair between housewife Laura (Celia Johnson) and doctor Alec (Trevor Howard), who meet fortuitously in a train station. There’s obviously a connection between the two, but they know their romance can’t proceed further than a few furtive lunch meetings.

In crafting one of the most effective tearjerkers in cinema history, Lean made a number of formal advances that quickly established him as more than just someone riding the coattails of Noel Coward. For starters, Lean took the story out of the train station, adding more details to the doomed affair. And he exploited all the cinematic tools at his disposal; the lighting, for example, approaches the severe look of Lean’s subsequent Dickens adaptations, making the symbolic most of the dark, smoky station. He also makes good use of sound effects (particularly that of a speeding train), as well as music, incorporating Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 as the film’s running theme.

But most importantly, Lean includes frequent close-ups of Johnson’s eyes, which tell a better story than most scripts. She and Howard are superlative in this saddest of stories, their every movement steeped in meaning and the sterling dialogue laced with deep emotions. A passing glance, the brush of a finger across a hand, and a shared laugh are virtually all these illfated lovers are allowed, and Johnson and Howard beautifully convey this sad realization. JKl

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1940s




THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES (1946)

U.S. (Samuel Goldwyn) 172m BW

Director: William Wyler

Producer: Samuel Goldwyn

Screenplay: Robert E. Sherwood, from the novel Glory for Me by MacKinlay Kantor

Photography: Gregg Toland

Music: Hugo Friedhofer

Cast: Myrna Loy, Fredric March, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, Cathy O’Donnell, Hoagy Carmichael, Harold Russell, Gladys George, Roman Bohnen, Ray Collins, Minna Gombell, Walter Baldwin, Steve Cochran, Dorothy Adams

Oscars: Harold Russell (honorary award), Samuel Goldwyn (best picture), William Wyler (director), Robert E. Sherwood (screenplay), Fredric March (actor), Harold Russell (actor), Daniel Mandell (editing), Hugo Friedhofer (music)

Oscar nomination: Gordon Sawyer (sound)

Steven jay schneider

This domestic epic about three World War II veterans returning to civilian life, 172 minutes long and winner of nine Oscars, isn’t considered hip nowadays. Critics as sharp as Manny Farber and Robert Warshow were pretty contemptuous of it when it came out—although seemingly from opposite political viewpoints. Farber saw it as liberal hogwash from a conservative angle, whereas Warshow skewered it more from a Marxist perspective. Its director, William Wyler, and the literary source, MacKinlay Kantor’s novel, are far from fashionable today. The veteran in the cast, Harold Russell, who lost his hands in the war, occasioned outraged reflections from Warshow about challenged masculinity and even sick jokes from humorist Terry Southern many years later. For all that, it is one of the best American movies about returning soldiers ever made—certainly the most moving and the most deeply felt. It bears witness to its times and contemporaries like few other Hollywood features, and Gregg Toland’s deep-focus cinematography is incredible.

Part of what is so unusual about The Best Years of Our Lives as a Hollywood picture is its sense of class distinctions—the way that the separate fates and careers of veterans who are well-to-do (March), middle-class (Russell), and working-class (Andrews) are juxtaposed. Admittedly, the fact that they all meet one another at a bar presided over by Hoagy Carmichael is something of a sentimental contrivance, yet the relative blurring of class lines in the armed services that carries over briefly into civilian life has its plausible side as well. Similarly, the limitations of Russell as an actor have been held against the picture, yet the fact that we accept him as the real disabled veteran that he was seems far more important, documentary truth in this case superseding the interests of fiction. The scenes between him and his (fictional) fiancée, as they both struggle to adjust to their reconfigured relationship, are wrenching in their tenderness as well as their honesty, with few passages in American cinema to equal them. JRos

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1940s




PAISÀ (1946)

PAISAN

Italy (Foreign Film, OFI) 120m BW

Language: Italian / English / German

Director: Roberto Rossellini

Producer: Mario Conti, Rod E. Geiger, Roberto Rossellini

Screenplay: Sergio Amidei, Federico Fellini

Photography: Otello Martelli

Music: Renzo Rossellini

Cast: Carmela Sazio, Robert Van Loon, Benjam Emmanuel, Harold Wagner, Merlin Berth, Dots Johnson, Alfonsino Pasca, Maria Michi, Gar Moore, Harriet Medin, Renzo Avanzo, William Tubbs, Dale Edmonds, Cigolani, Allen Dan

Oscar nomination: Alfred Hayes, Federico Fellini, Sergio Amidei, Marcello Pagliero, Roberto Rossellini (screenplay)

Anyone approaching Paisan without foreknowledge of its status as a Neorealist masterpiece could be forgiven for giving up early on: stock footage of the American campaign in Italy, Hollywood-style music, bad actors barking military commands. It is only by the end of the first of six self-contained episodes that Roberto Rossellini’s off-hand style has begun to weave its stark magic—soon after a bullet abruptly kills off a soldier telling his life story, we see the corpse of his companion, killed by the Germans and dismissed, unknowingly, by the surviving Americans as a “dirty Iti.”

Rossellini’s chronicle of 1943–46 is marked by devastation, brutality, and incomprehension at all levels. An American does not realize that a prostitute is the woman he loved six months earlier; a street-urchin befriends a drunken, black soldier and steals his shoes the instant he falls asleep; the film’s final, unforgettably bleak image shows the merciless execution of a line of partisans.

Rossellini develops a structure to match this succession of events, based on startling plot ellipses, cross-purpose dialogues in multiple languages, and a rigorously unsentimental presentation of horrors. Paisan locates the telling traces of personal life within the nightmare of war’s history. AM

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1940s




THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE (1946)

U.S. (MGM) 113m BW

Director: Tay Garnett

Producer: Carey Wilson

Screenplay: Harry Ruskin, from novel by James M. Cain

Photography: Sidney Wagner

Music: George Bassman

Cast: Lana Turner, John Garfield, Cecil Kellaway, Hume Cronyn, Leon Ames, Audrey Totter, Alan Reed, Jeff York

Lana Turner was never more attractive than in her role as Cora Smith, who marries an unattractive older man (Cecil Kellaway) as an escape from poverty but, deeply dissatisfied, gives in to her attraction for a young drifter, Frank Chambers (John Garfield). As in many film noir features, the doomed couple’s affair hinges on a crime: the murder of Cora’s husband. Aided by a shyster lawyer, the pair are exonerated. Yet they fail to find happiness as Cora is killed in a car accident and Frank is executed for this “crime.”

Director Tay Garnett’s tight framing emphasizes the imprisonment of the fatal lovers, and the film’s gloomy and forbidding mise-en-scène is the perfect setting for their grim story. With white costuming and glamorizing lighting, Turner becomes the visual center of the story, which was based on the James M. Cain novel published a decade earlier. Cora is no ordinary femme fatale. Her feelings for Frank are genuine, not artful manipulation.

The Postman Always Rings Twice reflects the Depression culture of the 1930s, with most of the scenes played in a barely respectable roadside diner, a potent image of rootlessness and limited opportunity. The flashback narrative suits the omnipresent pessimism of the noir series, of which this is one of the most justly celebrated examples. RBP

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1940s




MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946)

U.S. (Fox) 97m BW

Director: John Ford

Producer: Samuel G. Engel, Darryl F. Zanuck

Photography: Joseph MacDonald

Screenplay: Samuel G. Engel, Sam Hellman

Music: Cyril J. Mockridge

Cast: Henry Fonda, Linda Darnell, Victor Mature, Cathy Downs, Walter Brennan, Tim Holt, Ward Bond, Alan Mowbray, John Ireland, Roy Roberts, Jane Darwell, Grant Withers, J. Farrell MacDonald, Russell Simpson

Steven jay schneider

Though Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), Hour of the Gun (1967), Doc (1971), Tombstone (1993), and Wyatt Earp (1994) are all more “historically accurate” (for what that’s worth), John Ford’s romantic, balladlike take on the old, old story remains the Wyatt Earp–Doc Holliday–OK Corral movie.

Peaceable cattleman Wyatt (Henry Fonda) rides into the nightmarish helltown of Tombstone and turns down the job of Marshal even though he’s the only man who dares intervene to end the rampage of a drunken Indian. When rustlers murder one of his brothers, he holds a Fordian conversation with the youth’s gravestone before facing up to responsibilities and pinning on the badge. In cleaning up the wide-open town, Earp makes the community safe for the ordinary church-going, square-dancing folks who have been hiding in the shadows while the place was overrun by the fiendish Old Man Clanton (Walter Brennan) and his gang of killer sons. However, for all the splendors of Monument Valley (the familiar landscape augmented by picturesque cactus) and Fonda’s tight-lipped moral integrity, there is a downside to a crusade won only at the cost of the life of Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), a noble outlaw washed away along with the bad elements by bullets and consumption. This dark theme will later resurface in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Ford’s disillusioned revision of the town-taming Western.

Mature has a reputation for woodenness, but his turn here as the consumptive surgeon-gunman is heartrending and a bitterly witty turn. Fonda’s hero unbends slowly, emerging with stick insect-like grace in one of Ford’s trademark community dance scenes and memorably depicted in perfect balance on the porch, chair on two legs, one boot against a post. As always with the Fordian West, the action thrills represented by the elaborate last-reel gunfight are leavened by comic elements: a Shakespearean drunk who needs to be prompted by Doc in the middle of “To Be or Not to Be” and romantic complications with the luminous Chihuaha (Linda Darnell) and the schoolmarm Clementine (Cathy Downs). However, the tone is as often wistful or awestruck by the beauties of the landscape as it is cheer-along shoot-’em-up Saturday matinee material. KN

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1940s




THE STRANGER (1946)

U.S. (Haig, International, RKO) 95m

Director: Orson Welles

Producer: Sam Spiegel

Screenplay: Anthony Veiller, Victor Trivas, Decia Dunning

Photography: Russell Metty

Music: Bronislau Kaper

Cast: Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, Orson Welles, Philip Merivale, Richard Long, Konstantin Shayne, Byron Keith, Billy House, Martha Wentworth

Oscar nomination: Victor Trivas (screenplay)

Venice Film Festival: nomination Orson Welles (Golden Lion)

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The Stranger, Orson Welles’s least-known film as a director, was a medium-budget project he took from producer Sam Spiegel to prove that he could make a “proper, commercial film.” One of a run of immediate postwar thrillers about tracking down Nazi war criminals (others include Cornered [1945] and Notorious [1946]), it hearkens back to the antifascist credentials Welles established with his famous stage Julius Caesar and even has echoes of a novel he considered filming before settling on Citizen Kane (1941) as his debut project—Nicholas Blake’s prewar mystery about British fascism, The Smiler with a Knife.

Anonymously named government investigator Wilson (Edward G. Robinson) tracks down charismatic Nazi Franz Kindler—who is supposed to have invented the extermination camp—to a small college town in Connecticut. Kindler is posing as history professor Charles Rankin and has just married Mary (Loretta Young), the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice. Less complicated than the love-political triangle of Notorious, the film works on a similar theme as Wilson persuades Mary to help expose her evil husband, before turning into a variant on those popular 1940s thrillers (Gaslight [1944], and The Two Mrs. Carrolls [1947]) in which evil husbands plot to murder their innocent wives.

Welles makes a convincing villainous Übermensch villain, giving himself away in conversation by stating that “Marx wasn’t a German, he was a Jew,” his rottenness seeping into the petty world of the picturesque small town as he pursues his obsessive hobby by restoring an ancient clock. The Stranger still has the Welles visual pizzazz, but by 1946 film noir had caught up with his love for shadows and grotesqueries, so it does indeed blend in with other pictures of its type.

The film becomes especially melodramatic in the finale, which takes place at the top of a rickety sabotaged ladder in the clock tower, with Kindler cornered like King Kong and killed, a mechanical clockwork figure impaling him on an outthrust sword—the sort of explicit violence justifiable in a 1946 Hollywood movie if the villain was an unrepentant Nazi. Prefiguring David Lynch by decades, Welles establishes a folksy smalltown atmosphere and subverts it, with drugstore philosophers who cheat at checkers and prom queens who marry fascists. KN

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1940s




LA BELLE ET LA BÊTE (1946)

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST

France (DisCina) 96m BW

Language: French

Director: Jean Cocteau

Producer: André Paulvé

Screenplay: Jean Cocteau, Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont

Photography: Henri Alekan

Music: Georges Auric

Cast: Jean Marais, Josette Day, Mila Parély, Nane Germon, Michel Auclair, Raoul Marco, Marcel André

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Jean Cocteau never called himself a filmmaker per se. He considered himself a poet; film was just one of the many art forms he delved into throughout his career. Yet even if Cocteau thought himself a poet rather than a “mere” filmmaker, his brilliant, visionary rendition of this classic folktale certainly proved the two titles were not mutually exclusive. Moreover, the fact that of all his projects the dreamlike Beauty and the Beast remains his most beloved work reveals not only both his immense versatility and talent, but also the endurance and mass acceptance of film over all his other preferred formats.

Indeed, Cocteau approached Beauty and the Beast—only his second feature film—fully cognizant of the medium’s broad reach and fueled by an agenda. On the one hand, his peers were looking to him to put French filmmaking back on the map after the massive cultural setback of the German occupation; Beauty and the Beast was to be a de facto national statement of purpose from France’s artistic community. On the other hand, Cocteau was also being egged on by the critics, who accused the artist of elitism and of being out of touch with the public’s tastes. Could he ever produce a mainstream work that would be embraced by the people?

With both challenges in mind, Cocteau approached the centuries-old Beauty and the Beast fable as an outlet for even his most outlandish and fantastic creative impulses. In fact, the relatively straightforward framework of the original story encouraged such experimentation. When her father is held captive by a seemingly monstrous beast (Jean Marais) in a remote castle, daughter Beauty (Josette Day) volunteers to take his place. But the Beast’s bargain is more than it seems: he tells Beauty he wants to marry her, and Beauty must look past the appearance and to the good heart of her hairy suitor before making her decision.

Cocteau sets their courtship in a magical castle—the proving ground for a number of beautiful effects. Beauty doesn’t just walk through the halls, she glides. Candles are lodged not in traditional holders but grasped by humanoid arms affixed to the walls. Mirrors are transformed to liquid portals, flames flicker and extinguish with a mind of their own, and statues come to life. The castle works both as a metaphor for the creative process personified as well as an excuse for numerous Freudian images. Because Beauty can’t really consummate her relationship with the Beast until he is transformed, Cocteau has her fondling knives and traveling down long corridors as a means of revealing her subconscious desires.

But Cocteau’s greatest achievement was making the monstrous Beast convincing as well as appealing. With Marais buried under elaborate makeup, the Beast’s goodness must be conveyed through his actions and deeds, thus revealing the humanity both literally and figuratively beneath the fur and fangs. In fact, so successful is Marais’s portrayal that at the film’s premiere, when the Beast is finally transformed into a blandly handsome Prince and he and Beauty live happily ever after, actress Greta Garbo famously exclaimed “Give me back my beast!” JKl

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1940s




THE BIG SLEEP (1946)

U.S. (First National, Warner) 114m BW

Director: Howard Hawks

Producer: Howard Hawks, Jack L. Warner

Screenplay: William Faulkner, from novel by Raymond Chandler

Photography: Sidney Hickox

Music: Max Steiner

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, Peggy Knudsen, Regis Toomey, Charles Waldron, Charles D. Brown, Bob Steele, Elisha Cook Jr., Louis Jean Heydt

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Supposedly when director Howard Hawks asked novelist Raymond Chandler to explain the numerous double crosses, twists, and surprises revealed throughout his book The Big Sleep, the writer famously and honestly replied, “I have no idea.” That isn’t to say the various twists and turns are not important to The Big Sleep, or even that their presence in the book is just arbitrary confusion. Rather, Chandler’s notoriously muddled “whodunit” merely complicates an already complicated tale of Los Angeles corruption, further tainting a nearly endless list of seedy characters.

It should therefore come as no surprise that Hawks gently shifted the focus of his adaptation from sleuthing to the sleuth, in this case Humphrey Bogart as hard-boiled private investigator Philip Marlowe. Taking advantage of the success of the 1944 film To Have and Have Not, Hawks reunited Bogart with Lauren Bacall and played up their palpable chemistry. When they’re on the screen together, the detective story fades to the background (they were married six months after shooting ended). Hawks exploited that sexual tension, adding extra scenes with the two actors and stressing the innuendo-laced dialogue, particularly racy (especially an exchange about horses and saddles) in light of the era’s Production Code.

And what of the whodunit? Thankfully, the central investigation, confusing though it may be, is still a joy to watch. Marlowe acts as our Virgil-like guide as he descends into Hollywood’s darkest and dirtiest corners, unraveling a murder/ blackmail plot that involves pornographers, nymphomaniacs, and a bevy of hired hoods who barely have time to reveal more plot points (and red herrings) before getting plugged.

The Big Sleep is a reference to death, and indeed death pervades the movie. This is a film noir masterpiece missing several standard film noir tenets. There are numerous femme fatales, but no flashbacks; chiaroscuro lighting, but no voice-over. More important, Bogart’s Marlowe seems not lost in a world of lies and deception but utterly confident and in control at all times. He’s a droll antihero, cool in the face of cruelty, unfazed in the face of wanton sleaze, and always appreciative of a pretty face. JKl

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1940s




THE KILLERS (1946)

U.S. (Mark Hellinger, Universal) 105m BW

Director: Robert Siodmak

Producer: Mark Hellinger

Screenplay: Anthony Veiller, from story by Ernest Hemgway

Photography: Elwood Bredell

Music: Miklós Rózsa

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Albert Dekker, Sam Levene, Vince Barnett, Virginia Christine, Jack Lambert, Charles D. Brown, Donald MacBride, Charles McGraw, William Conrad

Oscar nominations: Robert Siodmak (director), Anthony Veiller (screenplay), Arthur Hilton (editing), Miklós Rózsa (music)

The first ten minutes of Robert Siodmak’s classic film noir reproduces Hemingway’s brief 1927 story almost verbatim: Two hit men barge into a sleepy burg to gun down the unresisting recluse Swede (Burt Lancaster). Extrapolating imaginatively, screenwriters Anthony Veiller and John Huston invent Riordan (Edmond O’Brien), a zealous insurance investigator who uncovers Swede’s past: an ex-pug mixed up with a shady dame (Ava Gardner), a payroll heist, and a double cross.

Citizen Kane fractured its narrative into flashbacks related by different narrators; The Killers takes the idea a step further by scrambling the flashbacks’ temporal order. The process of piecing together this jigsaw reinforces a reciprocal link between the spectator and Riordan. As he delves into Swede’s past, the restless company-man Riordan gets the thrill of vicariously living a film noir life without paying the usual consequences. The relationship between Riordan and Swede’s illicit world becomes analogous to that between the spectator and the film—a concept crystallized when, just before the showdown, Riordan sits silhouetted in the foreground as if he were in the front row of a movie theater. The Killers is not only a superior film noir but also a commentary on why we enjoy film noir, as an escape from humdrum security into danger and doom, but only at a safe distance. MR

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1940s




A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946)

G.B. (The Archers, Independent, Rank) 104m BW / Technicolor

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Producer: George R. Busby, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Screenplay: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Photography: Jack Cardiff

Music: Allan Gray

Cast: David Niven, Kim Hunter, Robert Coote, Kathleen Byron, Richard Attenborough, Bonar Colleano, Joan Maude, Marius Goring, Roger Livesey, Robert Atkins, Bob Roberts, Edwin Max, Betty Potter, Abraham Sofaer, Raymond Massey

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 fantasy, A Matter of Life and Death (renamed Stairway To Heaven for the U.S. market), was intended as a propaganda film to ameliorate strained relations between Britain and America. The movie outstrips its original purpose, however, ending up a lasting tale of romance and human goodness that is both visually exciting and verbally amusing.

Ready to jump from his burning airplane to certain death, a World War II pilot (David Niven) falls in love with the voice of an American radio operator (Kim Hunter). He awakes on a beach, believing he is in heaven. Finding that he is alive, he seizes the opportunity to fall in love with the American girl in person. But the powers above have made an error, and Heavenly Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) is sent to tell him the truth and take him to heaven where he belongs. The outstanding set design by Alfred Junge raises this film above its already impressive sentiments and nimble script, which switches with ease between earth (filmed in Technicolor) and the ethereal black and white of heaven. Along with its use of freeze-frames and breathtaking set decor in the great beyond, the camera includes a behind-the-eyeball shot of which Salvador Dalí would approve. KK

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1940s




GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946)

G.B. (Cineguild, Rank) 118m BW

Director: David Lean

Producer: Anthony Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame

Screenplay: Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Ronald Neame, from novel by Charles Dickens

Photography: Guy Green

Music: Walter Goehr, Kenneth Pakeman

Cast: John Mills, Anthony Wager, Valerie Hobson, Jean Simmons, Bernard Miles, Francis L. Sullivan, Finlay Currie, Martita Hunt, Alec Guinness, Ivor Barnard, Freda Jackson, Eileen Erskine, George Hayes, Hay Petrie, John Forrest

Oscars: John Bryan, Wilfred Shingleton (art direction), Guy Green (photography)

Oscar nominations: Ronald Neame (best picture), David Lean (director), David Lean, Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan (screenplay)

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Filmed in 1946 in the wake of the successes Brief Encounter and Blithe Spirit (both 1945), Great Expectations was David Lean’s first adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novels; Oliver Twist was to follow in 1948. Taking on the literary masterpiece as a cinematic task in every sense of the word, Lean explores and exploits the broad emotional horizon of the story and makes it a sweeping, mesmeric visual journey as well. The result is the finest literary adaptation ever filmed, as well as one of the best British films ever made.

Great Expectations shares elements with many horror films, opening on a broad marsh, which leads to a lonely neglected, cemetery. This opening scene was so vital that Lean, who had exact ideas about how the film should look, replaced the original cinematographer Robert Krasker with Guy Green. Here, the young hero Pip is threatened by a fierce and desperate escaped convict named Magwitch (Finlay Currie) who demands food and a file with which to remove his chains. Later, Pip is brought to the decrepit mansion of the equally decrepit and embittered Miss Havisham (Martita Hunt). Jilted at her wedding breakfast many years before, Miss Havisham still wears the remnants of her bridal gown and lingers around the dusty, rotting, and rodent-infested remains of that fateful dinner. Her macabre plan centers on making her ward, the young and beautiful Estella (Jean Simmons), into a one-woman avenger against all men. This includes Pip, who has fallen in love with her. His situation changes when a mysterious benefactor finances Pip’s move to London and his becoming a gentleman of means. Sharing a flat with Herbert Pocket (Alec Guinness in his first important role), the adult Pip (John Mills) becomes a snob, believing that Miss Havisham is his benefactor and that Estella is destined to be his wife. Any reader accustomed to Dickens knows better.

Some have argued that Mills at thirty-eight was far too old to play a character who is twenty going on twenty-one, as dictated by the novel. However, the fact is Pip needs only to be a witness to the drama played out around him rather than an active participant in his own destiny. Lean, who spent seven years as a film editor before directing his first feature, knew this well and so surrounds Mills with a solid yet colorful supporting cast. Some scenes are pure delight, such as Pip’s visit to the house of Wemmick (Ivor Barnard), his lawyer’s assistant, where our hero meets Wemmick’s elderly and slightly senile father called “Aged P,” shorthand for “aged parent” and a term still used by some to refer to their own. Although not essential for the plot, the scene is memorably heartwarming and amusing, bringing with it a great dollop of Dickensian appeal.

Despite its age, Great Expectations has not lost any of its grandeur or poignancy. Rated number five on the British Film Institute’s list of all-time greatest British movies, it earned Academy Awards for Best Art Direction and Best Black-and-White Cinematography, and was nominated for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Adapted Screenplay. In scope, vision, and coherence, this remains the supreme film based on Dickens’s work. KK

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1940s




NOTORIOUS (1946)

U.S. (RKO, Vanguard) 101m BW

Language: English / French

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Producer: Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay: Ben Hecht

Photography: Ted Tetzlaff

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Claude Rains, Louis Calhern, Leopoldine Konstantin, Reinhold Schünzel, Moroni Olsen, Ivan Triesault, Alex Minotis

Oscar nominations: Ben Hecht (screenplay), Claude Rains (actor in support role)

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Though producer David O. Selznick reunited the winning team of director Alfred Hitchcock, star Ingrid Bergman, and writer Ben Hecht from Hitchcock’s psychoanalytical drama Spellbound (1945), and oversaw (with his customary blizzard of memos) the development of this classy, romantic spy story, he eventually sold the whole package to RKO and let Hitchcock produce it himself. Even David Thomson, Selznick’s biographer, admits that the film is as good as it is because Selznick wasn’t there to ruin it.

Toward the end of World War II, suave spymaster T. R. Devlin (Cary Grant) recruits loose-living Alicia Huberman (Bergman), the estranged daughter of a convicted traitor, to infiltrate a group of Nazi exiles in Argentina. Having fallen for the man who has rescued her from a life of trampy uselessness, Alicia is agonized when she feels Devlin is pimping her for the cause, and she is driven to take her mission to extremes by marrying the almost-fatherly fascist Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains). Inside Sebastian’s chilly, luxurious mansion, Alicia earns the hatred of the true power among the evil exiles, Sebastian’s smothering monster mother (Madame Konstantin), who is the sort of creature Mrs. Bates might have been if left alive. At a party, with a classic suspense mechanism in the dwindling supply of champagne that will eventually lead to a servant venturing into the wine cellar where the angelic Alicia and the devilish Devlin are snooping, Hitchcock produces his most elegant and yet topical detail: wine bottles full of uranium being used to create a Nazi A-bomb. The payoff is an agonizing moment of discovery when Sebastian is duped into believing that his wife is only unfaithful as opposed to a spy.

Notorious’s intense triangle drama constantly forces you to change your feelings about the three leads, with Rains even showing a bizarre heroism in the finale. The film is also a sumptuous romance, with Grant and Bergman sharing what was, at that point, the screen’s longest close-up kiss. Gorgeously shot by Ted Tetzlaff in luminous monochrome, with the stars looking (and acting) their best, this last reel was extremely unnerving as the monstrous mother supervises Alicia’s slow poisoning. KN

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1940s




BLACK NARCISSUS (1946)

G.B. (Independent, Rank, The Archers) 100m Technicolor

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Producer: George R. Busby, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Screenplay: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger, from novel by Rumer Godden

Photography: Jack Cardiff

Music: Brian Easdale

Cast: Deborah Kerr, Sabu, David Farrar, Flora Robson, Esmond Knight, Jean Simmons, Kathleen Byron, Jenny Laird, Judith Furse, May Hallatt, Eddie Whaley Jr., Shaun Noble, Nancy Roberts, Ley On

Oscars: Alfred Junge (art direction), Jack Cardiff (photography)

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Film historian David Thomson probably understates the case when he refers to Black Narcissus as “that rare thing, an erotic English film about the fantasies of nuns.” Based very closely on Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel, the picture follows a small group of sisters who are gifted with a building high up in the Himalayas that they attempt to turn into a convent school-cum-hospital. The drafty building was once a harem and is still adorned with explicit murals, while a cackling ayah left over from the times of licentiousness gleefully predicts that the sisters will succumb to the place’s atmosphere.

On one level, Black Narcissus is a matter-of-fact account of the failings of empire: These sensible Christians arrive with good intentions but are in an absurd situation, teaching only pupils who are paid by the local maharajah to attend lessons that mean nothing to them, and doctoring only minor cases—since if they should try and fail to save a patient, the hospital will be abandoned as if cursed. Directors Powell and Pressburger see the humor in the nuns’ frustrations, observing a culture clash without dismissing either the rational or primitive point of view, relishing the irony that it is the most religious characters who are the most sensible here (when they should be prone to all manner of unfounded beliefs), and the godless ones who are most inclined to superstition.

Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr), promoted too young, tries to keep the mission together like an inexperienced officer in a war movie, thrown together with the smoldering, disreputable Mr. Dean (David Farrar) and thus exciting the eventually homicidal jealousy of the most repressed of the nuns, Sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron). As the obsessions begin to bite, the film becomes more surreal, with the studio-bound exotica glowing under Jack Cardiff’s vivid Technicolor cinematography and Kerr and Byron trembling under their wimples as the passionate nuns. Among the most startling moments in British cinema is the “revelation” of Sister Ruth stripped of her habit, in a mail-order dress and blood-red lipstick, transformed into a harpie who tries to push Clodagh over a precipice as she sounds the convent bell. A nearly grown-up Sabu (Mowgli in the 1942 jungle Book) and a young Jean Simmons (with a jeweled snail on her nose) play the sensual innocents who set a bad example. KN

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1940s




IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946)

U.S. (Liberty, RKO) 130m BW

Director: Frank Capra

Producer: Frank Capra

Screenplay: Philip Van Doren Stern, Frances Goodrich

Photography: Joseph Biroc, Joseph Walker, Victor Milner

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin, Leigh Harline, Leith Stevens, Dave Torbett, Roy Webb

Cast: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H.B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Todd Karns, Samuel S. Hinds, Mary Treen, Virginia Patton

Oscar nominations: Frank Capra (best picture), Frank Capra (director), James Stewart (actor), William Hornbeck (editing), John Aalberg (sound)

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After celebrating the common man in such 1930s classics as It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), and You Can’t Take It with You (1938), Frank Capra’s first postwar film revels unashamedly in the goodness of ordinary folks as well as the value of humble dreams, even if they don’t come true. Based on The Greatest Gift, a short story written on a Christmas card by Philip Van Doren Stern, the film’s vital leading role of a young man saddled with responsibility was almost turned down by war-weary James Stewart. Released in 1946 to mixed reviews, the film was nevertheless nominated for five Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Best Actor), but it didn’t win in any category. Whether it was a film that required frequent viewing to be fully appreciated or that simply had been made at the wrong time is now a moot point. By the 1960s, the film’s copyright expired, which opened the floodgates for a “public domain” version to be circulated for cheap and frequent television broadcast. Repeated heavily around the holiday season, it became a mainstay of wholesome family viewing. As an emotional touchstone for several generations, public broadcasting stations in the 1970s cemented the film’s reputation of quality by scheduling it against the commercial networks’ crass and materialistic holiday fare.

Gangling, good-hearted George Bailey (Stewart) grows up in tiny Bedford Falls, Connecticut, but dreams of traveling the world. Duty, though, steps in again and again to crush George’s dream. The loss of his freedom is only softened by George’s marriage to local beauty Mary (Donna Reed) and later by his young family and his own sense of homey philanthropy in helping the working people of Bedford Falls afford their own homes. Finally, forced to take over the family savings and loan, which is threatened with foreclosure by the greedy town banker Mr. Potter (Lionel Barrymore was rarely more disagreeable), George becomes so overburdened that he attempts suicide by jumping off the local bridge. But a miracle happens: an angel named Clarence (Henry Travers) is sent from heaven to show George what the town would have become if George had had his wish and hadn’t lived at all. If and only if George is convinced of his own value will his suicide be undone, the town be returned to normal, and Clarence, a second-class angel, get his wings.

It’s a Wonderful Life remains a holiday favorite for its uplifting message tempered by a foreboding notion of “what if.” Viewed on a big screen without holiday distractions, the film is actually more of a delightfully shrewd screwball comedy packed with fast, incisive observations on love, sex, and society. The high quality of the banter especially points to uncredited script input from Dorothy Parker, Dalton Trumbo, and Clifford Odets. The movie was a favorite of Capra and Stewart, both of whom expressed extreme dismay when it became an early victim of the colorization craze. KK

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1940s




GILDA (1946)

U.S. (Columbia) 110m BW

Director: Charles Vidor

Producer: Virginia Van Upp

Screenplay: Jo Eisinger, E.A. Ellington

Photography: Rudolph Maté

Music: Doris Fisher, Allan Roberts, Hugo Friedhofer

Cast: Rita Hayworth, Glenn Ford, George Macready, Joseph Calleia, Steven Geray, Joe Sawyer, Gerald Mohr, Robert E. Scott, Ludwig Donath, Donald Douglas

“Statistics show there are more women in the world than anything else,” snaps cynical hero Johnny Farrell (Glenn Ford), adding, with peculiar loathing, “except insects!” And yet this misogyny coexists in director Charles Vidor’s film with the exquisite Gilda (Rita Hayworth) herself. A character who is at once a total blank and a masterful ironist, whose signature tune “Put the Blame on Mame”—to which she performs a supremely exotic striptease involving only the removal of her elbow-length velvet gloves—is a pointed exposé of the way women are made to seem responsible for the havoc wreaked by men who become obsessed with them.

Johnny, a hardboiled gambler who looks suavely uncomfortable in his dinner jacket, becomes manager of a casino in Buenos Aires, working for Ballin Mundson (George Macready), a frozen-faced mastermind who wields a sword cane, enjoys spying on his customers and associates from a control room in the gambling joint, and forms the apex of a three-way love triangle that triggers the plot. Ford and Hayworth, limited but engaging and photogenic actors, have definitive performances drawn out of them like teeth, and Macready has the time of his life as the complex villain. As the posters claim, “there never was a woman like Gilda!” KN

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1940s




MONSIEUR VERDOUX (1947)

U.S. (Charles Chaplin, United Artists) 24m BW

Director: Charles Chaplin

Producer: Charles Chaplin

Screenplay: Charles Chaplin

Photography: Roland Totheroh

Music: Charles Chaplin

Cast: Charles Chaplin, Mady Correll, Allison Roddan, Robert Lewis, Audrey Betz, Martha Raye, Ada May, Isobel Elsom, Marjorie Bennett, Helene Heigh, Margaret Hoffman, Marilyn Nash, Irving Bacon, Edwin Mills, Virginia Brissac

Oscar nomination: Charles Chaplin (screenplay)

Charles Chaplin bought the idea for his blackest comedy (for $5,000) from Orson Welles, who had originally planned a dramatized documentary about the legendary French serial wife killer Henri Desiré Landru. Chaplin gave the story a new and acute sociosatirical edge, in response to the then-growing political paranoia of the Cold War years. Verdoux (Chaplin), the suave and charming little bourgeois, only adopts his lucrative profession of marrying and murdering rich widows when economic depression removes the possibility of his earning an honest living as a bank clerk. Finally brought to justice, his defense is that although private murder is condemned, public killing—in the form of war—is glorified: “One murder makes a villain—millions a hero. Numbers sanctify.” These were not popular sentiments in 1946 America, and Chaplin found himself more and more the target of the political right—a witch hunt that led to his decision to give up his residency in the United States in 1953.

Verdoux, accompanied by his jaunty little theme tune (Chaplin as usual was his own composer), is a rich and vivid character. The tight economies of the postwar period obliged Chaplin to work more quickly and with much more planning than on any previous films. The result is one of his most tightly constructed narratives, which he unselfconsciously considered “the cleverest and most brilliant film of my career.” DR

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1940s




OUT OF THE PAST (1947)

U.S. (RKO) 97m BW

Director: Jacques Tourneur

Producer: Warren Duff

Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring, from his novel Build My Gallows High

Photography : Nicholas Musuraca

Music: Roy Webb

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb, Steve Brodie, Virginia Huston, Paul Valentine, Dickie Moore, Ken Niles

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On an Acapulco beach, with the sea shimmering through a fisherman’s nets, gumshoe Jeff Markham (Robert Mitchum) kisses Kathy Moffat (Jane Greer), the woman he has been hired to find for gangster Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), her former boyfriend. Kathy sits alongside Jeff and reveals she knows he been sent to find her. She confesses to shooting Whit but denies taking his $40,000. She asks Jeff to believe her. Leaning forward to kiss her, Jeff nearly whispers, “Baby, I don’t care.”

Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past, adapted from Daniel Mainwaring’s novel Build My Gallows High, may be the masterpiece of film noir. All the elements are there: the woman who lies, but is so beautiful that one could forgive almost anything, or at least die at her side. The bitter past that rises up again and destroys the main character. The private eye, a man of wit and know-how who makes the mistake of giving in to his passion—more than once. Mitchum perfectly embodies this figure. Like Humphrey Bogart, he possesses a calm interiority that expresses independence and confidence. As one character says of him, “He just sits and stays inside himself.” But unlike the cautious Bogart, Mitchum literally slouches into his role as Jeff, his heavy relaxation making his vulnerability not only believable but tragic.

Is Kathy’s passion for Jeff real? In spite of her inability to endure difficulties for his sake and her fatalistic attitude about love, does she really love him? For that matter, is Jeff’s ardor for her sincere? Although he phones the police to convert their final getaway into an ambush, is he surrendering to her allure once again? This is the question that Jeff’s small town girlfriend Ann (Virginia Huston) asks The Kid (Dickie Moore), Jeff’s deaf-mute companion, at the film’s end. The Kid nods yes. Is he telling the truth? We feel that this gesture will free Ann from any future entanglement with Jeff’s fatal world, but does that mean it’s a lie? Out of the Past, like film noir in general, leaves us with the enigmas of fatal desires, the ambiguities of loves laced with fear. TG

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1940s




THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR (1947)

U.S. (Fox) 104m BW

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Producer: Fred Kohlmar

Screenplay: R.A. Dick, Philip Dunne, from novel by R.A. Dick

Photography: Charles Lang

Music: Bernard Herrmann

Cast: Gene Tierney, Rex Harrison, George Sanders, Edna Best, Vanessa Brown, Anna Lee, Robert Coote, Natalie Wood, Isobel Elsom, Victoria Horne

Oscar nomination: Charles Lang (photography)

A romantic, gentle, and wholly unscary ghost story, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir playfully toys with notions of souls meeting across time and the liberating power of the imagination. Gene Tierney, her wistful beauty for once well used, plays a pretty young widow who rents a haunted cliff-top cottage. Rex Harrison, one of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s favorite actors, plays the ghostly sea captain who becomes her guide and mentor—and whose ghosted, as it were, memoirs he encourages her to publish under her own name. Their relationship, warm but—for obvious reasons—unconsummated, sustains the film’s featherlight charm and adds a touch of poignancy. Harrison’s gruff performance, and a portrayal of suave caddishness from George Sanders as Tierney’s would-be suitor, prevents the fantasy from sliding into whimsy and keeps sentimentality at bay.

Despite the strictures of the prevailing censorship, Philip Dunne’s urbane script does an ingenious job of suggesting the captain’s salty vocabulary. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir also benefits from Charles Lang’s translucent cinematography, and one of Bernard Herrmann’s gentlest and most lyrical scores. The film was fondly enough remembered to give rise to a successful television series in the late 1960s. PK

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1940s




ODD MAN OUT (1947)

G.B. (Two Cities) 116m BW

Director: Carol Reed

Producer: Carol Reed, Phil C. Samuel

Screenplay: R.C. Sherriff, from novel by F.L. Green

Photography: Robert Krasker

Music: William Alwyn

Cast: James Mason, Robert Newton, Cyril Cusack, Peter Judge, William Hartnell, Fay Compton, Denis O’Dea, W.G. Fay, Maureen Delaney, Elwyn Brook-Jones, Robert Beatty, Dan O’Herlihy, Kitty Kirwan, Beryl Measor, Roy Irving

Oscar nomination: Fergus McDonnell (editing)

Carol Reed’s chronicle of an Irish republican soldier plays like an expressionist fever dream. James Mason, as Johnny McQueen, plays the leader of an anti-British group that plans a robbery that will help to fund their cause. On the night of the crime, Johnny kills a man and is shot himself, and must run from the authorities who set up a dragnet across the city to catch him and his associates. The entire film takes place during the rest of this night as Johnny seeks refuge and his girlfriend Kathleen (Kathleen Ryan) tries to find him.

Johnny discovers that people he trusted or thought were sympathetic to his cause will not stick their necks out for him. He is forced to keep moving and is passed along from one person to the next; each has a reason not to help him or to use him for their own aims. As his wound worsens, Johnny becomes deliriously philosophical and begins to understand that he is fundamentally alone in the world. The film’s score and shadowy black-and-white photography add to the overall sense of moral uncertainty. The way in which Odd Man Out bursts the seams of the political thriller genre and becomes a moving, thoughtful, and powerful meditation on social existence will continue to astonish moviegoers for all time. RH

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1940s




LADRI DI BICICLETTE (1948)

THE BICYCLE THIEF

Italy (De Sica) 93m BW

Language: Italian

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Producer: Giuseppe Amato, Vittorio De Sica

Screenplay: Cesare Zavattini, Oreste Biancoli, Suso d’Amico, Vittorio De Sica, Adolfo Franci, Gerardo Guerrieri, from novel by Luigi Bartolini

Photography: Carlo Montuori

Music: Alessandro Cicognini

Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani, Enzo Staiola, Lianella Carell, Gino Saltamerenda, Vittorio Antonucci, Giulio Chiari, Elena Altieri, Carlo Jachino, Michele Sakara, Emma Druetti, Fausto Guerzoni

Oscar: Giuseppe Amato, Vittorio De Sica (honorary award—best foreign language film)

Oscar nomination: Cesare Zavattini (screenplay)

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Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani), an unemployed worker in postwar Rome, finds a job putting up movie posters after his wife pawns the family’s bedsheets to get his bicycle out of hock. But right after he starts work the bike is stolen, and with his little boy Bruno (Enzo Staiola) in tow he crisscrosses the city trying to recover it, encountering various aspects of Roman society, including some of the more acute class differences, in the process.

This masterpiece—the Italian title translates as “bicycle thieves”—is one of the key works of Italian Neorealism. French critic André Bazin also recognized it as one of the great communist films. The fact that it received the 1949 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film suggests that it wasn’t perceived that way in the United States at the time. Ironically, the only thing American censors cared about was a scene in which the little boy urinates on the street. For some followers of auteur theory the film lost some of its power because it didn’t derive from a single creative intelligence. A collaboration between screenwriter Cesare Zavattini, director Vittorio De Sica, nonprofessional actors, and many others, the production is so charged with a common purpose that there is little point in even trying to separate achievements.

The Bicycle Thief contains what is possibly the greatest depiction of a relationship between a father and son in the history of cinema, full of subtle fluctuations and evolving gradations between the two characters in terms of respect and trust, and it’s an awesome heartbreaker. It also has its moments of Chaplinesque comedy—the contrasting behavior of two little boys having lunch at the same restaurant. Set alongside a film like Life Is Beautiful (1997), it provides some notion of how much mainstream world cinema and its relation to reality has been infantilized over the past half century. JRos

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1940s




LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948)

U.S. (Rampart, Universal) 86m BW

Director: Max Ophüls

Producer: John Houseman

Screenplay: Howard Koch, Stefan Zweig, from the novel Brief einer Unbekannten by Stefan Zweig

Photography: Franz Planer

Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof

Cast: Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan, Mady Christians, Marcel Journet, Art Smith, Carol Yorke, Howard Freeman, John Good, Leo B. Pessin, Erskine Sanford, Otto Waldis, Sonja Bryden

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Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), a concert pianist and gentleman dandy in turn-ofthe-century Vienna, arrives home after yet another evening of dissipation. His mute servant hands him a letter. It is from a woman, and its first words well and truly halt him in his tracks: “By the time you read this, I will be dead. . . .”

What unfolds from this extraordinary opening has more than a fair claim to being not only the best film of director Max Ophüls, and a supreme achievement in the often unfairly maligned genre of melodrama, but also one of the greatest films in world cinema history. It is, in its own terms, one of the few movies that deserve to be rated as perfect, right down to the smallest detail.

Superbly adapted from Stefan Zweig’s novella by Howard Koch, this is the apotheosis of “doomed love” fiction. Flashing back to trace the hopeless infatuation of young Lisa Berndl (Joan Fontaine) for Stefan, Ophüls gives us a vivid, heartbreaking portrait of a love that should never have been: Her naïve romanticization of artistic men mismatched with his indifferent objectification of available women adds up to gloomy tragedy. Ophüls’s intuitive grasp of the inequity of gender roles in 20th-century Western society is breathtaking.

Ophüls constructs a most exquisitely poised work. While encouraging us to identify with Lisa’s longing, and the dreams of a whole society fed by its popular culture (a mobile scenic backdrop standing in for a later era’s movies), Letter from an Unknown Woman at the same time provides a trenchant and devastating critique of the myth and ideology of romantic love. Our understanding of the tale hinges on its delicate shifts in mood and viewpoint.

Relentlessly and hypnotically, Ophüls’s mise-en-scène strips away the veils of illusion that envelop Lisa. Either the staging reveals the banal conditions of reality that underwrite these flights of fantasy, or the camera suggests—in subtle positionings and movements slightly detached from the story’s world—a knowing perspective that eludes the characters.

The film is a triumph not just of meaningful, expressive style, but of purposive narrative structure. With poignant voice-over narration from Lisa, decades are bridged and key years artfully skipped thanks to a patterning of significant details arranged as motifs, concentrated in repeated gestures (such as the giving of a flower), lines of dialogue (references to passing time are ubiquitous), and key objects (the staircase leading to Stefan’s apartment). By the time Ophüls reaches a Hollywood staple—the ghostlike apparition of young Lisa at last conjured in Stefan’s memory—the cliché is gloriously transcended, and tears overcome even those modern viewers who resist such old-fashioned “soaps.”

Letter from an Unknown Woman is an inexhaustibly rich film, one that has drawn myriad film lovers to try to unravel its themes, patterns, suggestions, and ironies. But no amount of close analysis can ever extinguish the rich, tearing emotion that this masterpiece elicits. AM

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1940s




SECRET BEYOND THE DOOR (1948)

U.S. (Diana) 99m BW

Director: Fritz Lang

Producer: Fritz Lang, Walter Wanger

Screenplay: Rufus King, Silvia Richards

Photography: Stanley Cortez

Music: Miklós Rózsa

Cast: Joan Bennett, Michael Redgrave, Anne Revere, Barbara O’Neil, Natalie Schafer, Anabel Shaw, Rosa Rey, James Seay, Mark Dennis, Paul Cavanagh

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Fritz Lang fans often divide on whether they prefer the certified, highbrow classics like M (1931), Metropolis (1926), and The Big Heat (1953), or the stranger, more cryptic and perverse films in his oeuvre that plumb less reputable areas of pop culture, such as Rancho Notorious (1952) and Moonfleet (1955). Secret Beyond the Door scrapes by in some accounts as a respectable film noir, but it is the beguiling mixture of many genres—women’s melodrama, Freudian case study, serial killer mystery, and allegory of the artistic/creative process—that makes it such a special and haunting oddity in the director’s career.

The film partakes of Hollywood’s “Female Gothic” cycle, exploring the fraught attachment of a woman (here, Joan Bennett) to a man (Michael Redgrave) who is all at once enigmatic, seductive, and (as the plot unravels) potentially life threatening. As in Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), which inspired Lang, the heroine enters a home of strangers, brimming with past, unspoken traumas, and sick, subterranean relationships.

Lang fixes the frankly sadomasochistic ambiguities of this plot (What is the true nature of the male beast, sensitivity or aggression? What does the woman really want from him, anyway, love or death?) into a startlingly novel context: Redgrave is a tormented-genius architect who has built a house of “felicitous rooms,” each the reconstructed scene of a grisly, patently psychosexual murder.

Secret Beyond the Door joins a special group of 1940s films, including Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach (1947) and the Val Lewton production The Seventh Victim (1943), whose potent, dreamlike aura is virtually guaranteed by their B-movie sparseness and free-association plotting—as well as, here, a voiceover narration that disorientatingly shifts from Bennett to Redgrave and back again. Heretical it may be for a card-carrying auteurist to suggest, but the cuts imposed by Universal on Lang’s initial edit probably enhanced this dreamlike quality. The end result may be short on rational links and explanations, but Secret Beyond the Door is one of the precious occasions when Lang—aided immeasurably by Stanley Cortez’s baroque cinematography and Miklós Rózsa’s lush score—managed to add a richly poetic dimension to his familiar fatalism. AM

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1940s




FORCE OF EVIL (1948)

U.S. (Enterprise, MGM) 78m BW

Director: Abraham Polonsky

Producer: Bob Roberts

Screenplay: Abraham Polonsky, Ira Wolfert, from the novel Tucker’s People by Ira Wolfert

Photography: George Barnes

Music: David Raksin

Cast: John Garfield, Thomas Gomez, Marie Windsor, Howland Chamberlain, Roy Roberts, Paul Fix, Stanley Prager, Barry Kelley, Paul McVey, Beatrice Pearson, Fred O. Sommers

Like The Night of the Hunter (1955), Force of Evil is a unique event in the history of American cinema. Its director, Abraham Polonsky, made two subsequent movies much later and scripted others, but this is the sole film in which the full extent of his promising brilliance shined, before being snuffed out by the McCarthy-era blacklist.

Force of Evil sits uncomfortably within the film noir genre, despite the presence of a star (John Garfield) associated with hard-boiled, streetwise movies. It is above all a film of poetry, carried by a “blank verse” voiceover and a highly stylized singsong dialogue, which are among the most astounding and radical innovations of 1940s cinema, anticipating Malick’s Badlands (1973).

This is a story of amorality, guilt, and redemption, dramatized through the near-Biblical device of betrayal between brothers. Polonsky breaks up the fatalistic gloom of the piece (its final image of a descent to a corpse among garbage is chilling) with a touching and very modern love story between Garfield and Beatrice Pearson.

The film is stylized down to the smallest detail in line with its poetic ambition: to liberate sound, image, and performance and have all three interact in an intoxicating polyphony. AM

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1940s




XIAO CHENG ZHI CHUN (1948)

SPRING IN A SMALL TOWN

China 85m BW

Language: Mandarin

Director: Fei Mu

Screenplay: Li Tianji

Photography: Li Shengwei

Music: Huang Yijun

Cast: Cui Chaoming, Li Wei, Shi Yu, Wei Wei, Zhang Hongmei

If one mark of a great film is its ability to introduce characters in an economical way, Fei Mu’s Spring in a Small Town projects its greatness instantly. Deftly and poignantly, the film unveils to us five figures: “The Wife” (Wei Wei), lonely and weary of daily chores; “The Husband” (Shi Yu), a sickly melancholic; “The Sister” (Zhang Hongmei), youthfully vivacious; Lao Huang, “The Servant” (Cui Chaoming), ever watchful; and “The Visitor” (Li Wei), strolling into this town (and out of the past) to become the catalyst for change.

Sparingly, the film builds its postwar drama: the desires, hopes, dreams, and hurts that play among these characters caught in the arrangement of bodies in the frame, a choreography of furtive looks, and sudden gestures of resistance or resignation. But there is also a modernist element: The wife’s voiceover narration, which poetically reiterates what is plainly visible, covers events she has not witnessed, and puts sad realities into brutal words.

This masterpiece of Chinese cinema has only recently received the worldwide recognition it deserves, influencing Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2001) and occasioning a respectful remake (2002). Spring in a Small Town stands among cinema’s finest, richest, and most moving melodramas. AM

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1940s




RED RIVER (1948)

U.S. (Charles K. Feldman, Monterey) 133m BW

Director: Howard Hawks, Arthur Rosson

Producer: Charles K. Feldman, Howard Hawks

Screenplay: Borden Chase, Charles Schnee

Photography: Russell Harlan

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Cast: John Wayne, Montgomery Clift, Joanne Dru, Walter Brennan, Coleen Gray, Harry Carey, John Ireland, Noah Beery Jr., Harry Carey Jr., Chief Yowlachie, Paul Fix, Hank Worden, Mickey Kuhn, Ray Hyke, Wally Wales

Oscar nominations: Borden Chase (screenplay), Christian Nyby (editing)

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A Western remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), this is a considerably deeper film than its source, presenting the Bligh–Christian relationship in terms of a father-son conflict. Star John Wayne—one of the most beautiful male leads of the 1930s, playing older than his real age with authentic and prescient crustiness—is interestingly matched by Hawks against the photogenic Montgomery Clift, epitome of a kind of sensitive, manly neurosis that would come in fashion in the next decade.

After a long prologue set during the aftermath of an 1851 Indian attack, in which we see how bereft Tom Dunson (Wayne) and orphaned Matthew Garth (Clift) combine their herds to form a cattle empire, we pick up the Red River D in a post–Civil War economic depression. Leading a cattle drive up into Missouri, the inflexible Dunson becomes more and more tyrannical, prompting Matt to rebel and steer the herd West by a safer route to Abilene. Dunson admires the kid’s guts, but nevertheless swears to track him down and shoot him dead, leading to one of the most emotional climaxes in the genre as the men who love each other face off among milling cattle in the Abilene streets.

Hawks, the great film chronicler of macho pursuits, here stages the definitive cow opera, putting all other cattle-drive Westerns in the shade with beautiful, lyrical, exciting sequences of stampeding, rough weather, cowboying, and Indian skirmishes. The leads are at their best, with Wayne astonishingly matching Clift for subtlety, and you get sterling support from Walter Brennan as the toothless coot, John Ireland as a lanky gunslinger, and Joanne Dru as a pioneer gal who can take an arrow in the shoulder without hardly flinching. Though known for his Westerns, Hawks made surprisingly few films in the genre. This seems like an affectionate tribute to John Ford, mixed in with a certain I-can-do-that-too attitude, as Hawks casts several members of his peer’s stock company: Harry Carey Senior and Junior, Hank Worden, even Wayne himself. Hawks uses a Fordian approach to the dangerous splendors of the Western landscape along with a Ford-like folk song–based score from Dimitri Tiomkin. KN

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1940s




ROPE (1948)

U.S. (Transatlantic, Warner Bros.) 80m Technicolor

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Producer: Sidney Bernstein

Screenplay: Hume Cronyn, Arthur Laurents, from the play Rope’s End by Patrick Hamilton

Photography: William V. Skall, Joseph A. Valentine

Music: David Buttolph

Cast: James Stewart, John Dall, Farley Granger, Cedric Hardwicke, Constance Collier, Douglas Dick, Edith Evanson, Dick Hogan, Joan Chandler

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Though he owed his fame to showmanship and thrills, Alfred Hitchcock was always among the most experimental of commercial filmmakers. With a strong source in a play by Patrick Hamilton (of Gaslight [1944] fame) based on the Leopold and Loeb case, more conventionally dramatized in the 1959 film Compulsion, Rope calls attention to its theatrical one-set backdrop by consisting of reel-long takes spliced together almost invisibly so that the film appears to unspool unedited. Given that, in 1948, many film audiences had barely registered that movies consisted of brief snippets cut together for dramatic effect—most films about filmmaking even now seem to suggest that scenes are shot as if they were happening in live theater—it may well be that Hitchcock was most interested in addressing his fellow professionals, demonstrating an alternate manner of telling a film story in much the way that the later Dogme95 movement or The Blair Witch Project (1999) set out to do.

Apart from the technical challenges of having the camera follow characters around a large New York apartment, telling a story in “real time,” Rope has quite a bit of intrinsic interest as two cohabiting bachelors (John Dall and Farley Granger) try to get away with a casual murder to prove an obscure point. At once an intense psychological drama and a black comedy in the vein of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), the film delivers cat-and-mouse conflict as the killers invite professorial Jimmy Stewart around to impress him with their cleverness, flirting in more than one way with revelation.

The technique is less of a distraction than it might be, allowing Stewart and Dall to face off in a great battle of murderous camp and moral rectitude; it may be that all the attention paid to the long takes made the censors overlook the unusually frank depiction of a quasi-gay relationship between the murderers—it’s never addressed in the dialogue but there is only one bedroom in the apartment they share. Granger’s shakiness isn’t helped by the merciless length of the takes, but Dall and Stewart rise to the occasion, challenged to deliver sustained, theater-style performances in the more intimate medium of film. KN

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1940s




THE SNAKE PIT (1948)

U.S. (Fox) 108m BW

Director: Anatole Litvak

Producer: Robert Bassler, Anatole Litvak, Darryl F. Zanuck

Screenplay: Millen Brand, Frank Partos, from novel by Mary Jane Ward

Photography: Leo Tover

Music: Alfred Newman

Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Mark Stevens, Leo Genn, Celeste Holm, Glenn Langan, Helen Craig, Leif Erickson, Beulah Bondi, Lee Patrick, Howard Freeman, Natalie Schafer, Ruth Donnelly, Katherine Locke, Frank Conroy, Minna Gombell

Oscar nominations: Robert Bassler, Anatole Litvak (best picture), Anatole Litvak (director), Frank Partos, Millen Brand (screenplay), Olivia de Havilland (actress), Alfred Newman (music)

Among the more impressive products of Hollywood’s postwar turn toward greater realism is Anatole Litvak’s brutally honest treatment of mental illness and its cure in the modern sanitarium, whose horrors include the overcrowded ward where the incurables are warehoused—the “snake pit” of the film’s title. The Snake Pit offers a more balanced view of mental disturbance than many more recent films, including the often praised One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1976).

Virginia Cunningham (Olivia de Havilland) seems at first a hopeless psychotic, but with treatment from a sympathetic doctor, Mark Kik (Leo Genn), she is able to undergo a “talking cure.” Flashbacks show a childhood in which she is denied not only her mother’s love but also attention from her father, who died when Virginia was very young. Virginia also suffers the death of the man she loves, for which she believes she is responsible. Under Dr. Kik’s care, she graduates to the “best” ward, only to be bullied there by a tyrannical nurse. Virginia’s subsequent misbehavior lands her in the “snake pit,” but this horrifying experience proves strangely therapeutic. Finally she wins release, at last understanding how her feelings of guilt are irrational.

Memorable is how the film shows the terror that Virginia’s illness makes her suffer. The Snake Pit’s optimistic realism contrasts with the pseudo-Freudian solutions of other movies of the period, including Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945). RBP

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1940s




THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1948)

U.S. (Columbia, Mercury) 87m BW

Language: English / Cantonese

Director: Orson Welles

Producer: William Castle, Orson Welles, Richard Wilson

Screenplay: Orson Welles, from the novel If I Die Before I Wake by Sherwood King

Photography: Charles Lawton Jr.

Music: Doris Fisher, Allan Roberts, Heinz Roemheld

Cast: Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Everett Sloane, Glenn Anders, Ted de Corsia, Erskine Sanford, Gus Schilling, Carl Frank, Louis Merrill, Evelyn Ellis, Harry Shannon

Having proved with The Stranger (1946) that he could make a “regular” film if he wanted to, Orson Welles here returns to the film noir genre, picking up almost at random a pulp novel (Sherwood King’s If I Die Before I Wake) and delivering something so rich and strange it was guaranteed to irk Columbia head Harry Cohn. Simply by shearing Rita Hayworth’s trademarked long hair and dying her crop blonde, Welles deliberately devalued a studio asset who happened to be his ex-wife, and that was even before it emerged that she was playing not the sympathetic bombshell of Gilda (1946) but a villainness so nasty that even her undoubted sex appeal becomes repulsive.

With a variable Irish accent, Welles is a seaman hired by a crippled lawyer (Everett Sloane, lizardy and scary) to crew his yacht and perhaps also (as in the anecdote preserved by Welles as The Immortal Story [1968]) to service his beautiful wife. A murder takes place, followed by a trial in which everyone acts unethically at best, and the crazy kaleidoscope is shattered by a finale involving a shoot-out in a hall of mirrors. The Lady from Shanghai is a broken mirror of a film, with shards of genius that can never be put together into anything that makes sense. KN

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1940s




THE PALEFACE (1948)

U.S. (Paramount) 91m Technicolor

Director: Norman Z. McLeod

Producer: Robert L. Welch

Screenplay: Edmund L. Hartmann, Frank Tashlin

Photography: Ray Rennahan

Music: Ray Evans, Jay Livingston, Victor Young

Cast: Bob Hope, Jane Russell, Robert Armstrong, Iris Adrian, Bobby Watson, Jackie Searl, Joseph Vitale, Charles Trowbridge, Clem Bevans, Jeff York, Stanley Andrews, Wade Crosby, Chief Yowlachie, Iron Eyes Cody, John Maxwell

Oscar: Jay Livingston, Ray Evans (song)

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Jane Russell plays Calamity Jane, recruited by the U.S. government to help track down a gang of renegade whites who are selling guns to the Indians. In order to pose as an emigrant on a wagon train going West, she marries Painless Peter Potter, an incompetent and cowardly dentist she encounters in a bathhouse—one doesn’t look for plausibility in such material! As Painless, Bob Hope has a wonderful time, letting forth a fusillade of jokes on the principle that if you don’t like this one, there will be another one along in a minute. Much of the humor in The Paleface is along predictable lines, with Indians inhaling the dentist’s laughing gas and Hope performing all manner of unheroics, leading to his being mistaken for a courageous Indian fighter. Hope is of course madly attracted to the curvaceous Russell—”You’ve got just the kind of mouth I like to work on.” There’s a running joke about the endlessly postponed consummation of the marriage as Russell gets on with the job of defeating the bad guys.

Painless and Calamity are captured and taken to an Indian camp, where Indians are played both by Chief Yowlachie (a genuine Native American) and by Iron Eyes Cody (an Italian-American who passed as a Native American). The comedy at their expense, though hardly politically correct, is too silly to give serious offense.

Hope gives a pleasing rendition of the song “Buttons and Bows,” written by Victor Young, which won an Oscar. It’s a plea for girls to go back East and wear pretty clothes, but Russell looks equally fetching in satin dresses and buckskin pants. Four years later “Buttons and Bows” was repeated in a sequel, titled Son of Paleface (directed by the writer of The Paleface, Frank Tashlin). Hope and Russell are reunited, this time supported by Roy Rogers and his horse Trigger, who gets a song of his own, “A Four-Legged Friend.” EB

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1940s




THE RED SHOES (1948)

G.B. (Independent, Rank, The Archers) 133m Technicolor

Director: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Producer: George R. Busby, Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger

Screenplay: Emeric Pressburger, Michael Powell, Keith Winter, from story by Hans Christian Andersen

Photography: Jack Cardiff

Music: Brian Easdale

Cast: Anton Walbrook, Marius Goring, Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Léonide Massine, Albert Bassermann, Ludmilla Tchérina, Esmond Knight

Oscars: Hein Heckroth, Arthur Lawson (art direction), Brian Easdale (music)

Oscar nominations: Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger (best picture), Emeric Pressburger (screenplay), Reginald Mills (editing)

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The 1948 Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger production has been beloved by generations of girls who want to grow up to be ballerinas, though its message to them is decidedly double-edged. In a dazzling twist on the old showbiz staris-born story, winsome, willful, talented debutante-cum-dancer Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) falls under the spell of Svengali-cum-Rasputin-cum-Diaghilev impresario Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook). She neglects her private life (a romance with composer Marius Goring) in favor of a passionate and almost unhealthy devotion to Art, with a beautifully choreographed tragic ending in the offing. After the departure of prima ballerina Boronskaja (Ludmilla Tchérina), whom Lermontov drops when she wants to get married, Vicky makes her starring debut in an especially created ballet version of the Hans Christian Andersen story of the girl whose shoes keep her dancing until she drops dead. This spurs the filmmakers—augmented by choreographer-dancer Robert Helpmann, costar Leonide Massine, and conductor Sir Thomas Beecham—to a twenty-minute fantasy dance sequence that set a trend (see On the Town [1949], An American in Paris [1951], and Oklahoma! [1955]) for such stylized high-culture interludes in musicals but manages far better than any of the imitators to retell in miniature the larger story of the film while still playing credibly as a performance piece in its own right.

Of course, Vicky’s offstage life sadly follows that of Andersen’s heroine, climaxing in a balletic leap in front of a train and the unforgettable tribute performance in which her devastated costars dance the Red Shoes ballet again with only the shoes to stand in for the star. Shearer, tiny and astonishing in her screen debut, is a powerhouse presence who can stand up to the full force of Walbrook’s overwhelming performance, convincing both as the ingenue dancing in a cramped hall with a third-rate company and as the great star adored by the whole world. The heroine is surrounded with weird fairy-tale backdrops for the daringly lush ballet, but production designer Hein Heckroth, art director Arthur Lawson, and cinematographer Jack Cardiff work as hard to make the supposedly normal off-stage scenes as rich and strange as the theatrical highlights.

Walbrook, eyes glowing when not hiding behind beetle-black dark glasses, coos and hisses Mephistophelean lines with a self-delight that’s impossible not to share, manipulating all about him with ease but still tragically alone in his monklike devotion to the ballet. The Red Shoes is a rare musical to capture the magic of theatrical performance without neglecting the sweaty, agonizing effort necessary to create such transports of delight. Its gossipy insider feel went a great way toward making ballet accessible outside its supposed high-class audience, contrasting the eager expectation of the musical students crowded into the highest (cheapest) seats with the offhand take-it-for-granted patronage of the well-dressed swine in the stalls before whom the artistic pearls are cast. Wrapped up with gorgeous sparkly color, off-the-beaten-track classical music selections, and a sinister edge that perfectly catches the ambiguity of traditional as opposed to Disney fairy tales, this is a luminous masterpiece. KN

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1940s




THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE (1948)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 126m BW

Director: John Huston

Producer: Henry Blanke, Jack L. Warner

Screenplay: John Huston, B. Traven, from novel by B. Traven

Photography: Ted D. McCord

Music: Buddy Kaye, Max Steiner

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston, Tim Holt, Bruce Bennett, Barton MacLane, Alfonso Bedoya, Arturo Soto Rangel, Manuel Dondé, José Torvay, Margarito Luna

Oscars: John Huston (director) (screenplay), Walter Huston (actor in support role)

Oscar nominations: Henry Blanke (best picture)

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The failed quest, fueled by ambition and frustrated by greed and internal dissension, was John Huston’s favorite plot, appealing to the mixture of romantic and cynic that made up his character. From The Maltese Falcon (1941) to The Man Who Would Be King (1975), he played repeated variations on this theme—but The Treasure of the Sierra Madre presents it in something close to its archetypal form. Three ill-assorted American drifters in Mexico join forces to prospect for gold, find it, and—inevitably—in the end, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and lose it again. Huston, always a great adaptor of literature for the screen, drew his story from a novel by the mysterious and reclusive writer B. Traven and, as ever, treated his source material with respect and affection, preserving much of Traven’s laconic dialogue and sardonic outlook.

Despite the studio’s opposition—because location filming, at least for A-list Hollywood productions, was rare in those days—Huston insisted on shooting almost entirely on location in Mexico, near an isolated village some 140 miles north of the capital. His intransigence paid off. The film’s texture exudes the dusty aridity of the Mexican landscape, so that watching it you can almost taste the grit between your teeth; and the actors, exiled from the comfortable environment of the studio and having to contend with the elements, were pushed into giving taut, edgy performances. This fitted Treasure’s theme: how people react under pressure. Whereas the old prospector (played by the director’s father Walter Huston) and the naive youngster (cowboy-movie actor Tim Holt) hang on to their principles in the face of adversity and the temptation of gold, the paranoid Fred C. Dobbs (Humphrey Bogart in one of his most memorably unsettling roles) cracks up and succumbs.

Huston’s determination to shoot Treasure the way he wanted paid off for the studio too. Jack Warner initially detested the film, but it brought Warner Brothers not only a box-office smash hit but triumphs at the Academy Awards. Huston won Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay, while his father picked up the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. It was the first and—so far—only time a father-and-son team had won at the Awards. PK

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1940s




LOUISIANA STORY (1948)

U.S. (Robert Flaherty) 78m BW

Language: English / French

Director: Robert J. Flaherty

Producer: Robert J. Flaherty

Screenplay: Frances H. Flaherty, Robert J. Flaherty

Photography: Richard Leacock

Music: Virgil Thomson

Cast: Joseph Boudreaux, Lionel Le Blanc, E. Bienvenu, Frank Hardy, C.P. Guedry

Oscar nomination: Frances H. Flaherty, Robert J. Flaherty (screenplay)

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For his last film, Louisiana Story, the great documentarian Robert J. Flaherty accepted sponsorship from Standard Oil to make a movie about oil prospecting in the Louisiana bayous. The funding came without strings, but even so Flaherty maybe soft-pedaled his depiction of the oil company a little, showing it as a benign force causing no damage to the unspoiled wilderness. But a hint of naïveté isn’t entirely out of place; events in the bayou, and the arrival of the oilmen, are shown us through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy (Joseph Boudreaux). The haunted, waterlogged landscape becomes a magical place, full of dark foliage and exotic wildlife, where an oil derrick gliding majestically up a waterway seems as mythical and unfathomable as the werewolves and mermaids the boy believes in.

Dialogue is minimal—partly because the director, as usual, was working with local people, not professional actors—and Flaherty relies mainly on his charged, lyrical images and Virgil Thomson’s score to carry the narrative. Thomson’s music, drawing ingeniously on original Cajun themes, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize—the first film score to win this honor. In Louisiana Story, as in all his finest work, Flaherty celebrates the beauty, danger, and fascination of the wild places of the earth. PK

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1940s




THE HEIRESS (1949)

U.S. (Paramount) 115m BW

Director: William Wyler

Producer: Lester Koenig, Robert Wyler, William Wyler

Screenplay: Augustus Goetz, Ruth Goetz, from the novel Washington Square by Henry James

Photography: Leo Tover

Music: Aaron Copland

Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, Miriam Hopkins, Vanessa Brown, Betty Linley, Ray Collins, Mona Freeman, Selena Royle, Paul Lees, Harry Antrim, Russ Conway, David Thursby

Oscars: Olivia de Havilland (actress), John Meehan, Harry Horner, Emile Kuri (art direction), Edith Head, Gile Steele (costume), Aaron Copland (music)

Oscar nominations: William Wyler (best picture), William Wyler (director), Ralph Richardson (actor in support role), Leo Tover (photography)

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“How can you be so cruel?” asks her aunt. “I have been taught by masters,” comes the icy reply. William Wyler’s unforgettable adaptation of Henry James’s novel Washington Square (pointlessly remade in 1997) revolves around indelible performances, intensified by the director’s trademark demanding long takes and meticulous mastery of mood, lighting, and camera technique. Olivia de Havilland, who received her second Academy Award for her performance, is heart-stopping as the dreadfully plain, painfully gauche girl marked as a spinster despite the fortune she will inherit from the cold, caustic father (Ralph Richardson), who regards her as an embarrassment.

Then beautiful, fortune-hunting wastrel Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) courts her, as insincere as he is irresistible. Over the insulting objections of her father and with the connivance of her foolishly romantic aunt (Miriam Hopkins), Catherine plots an elopement; when her lover decides to take his chances elsewhere, she undergoes a steely transformation. After the naive Catherine realizes that she has been jilted, de Havilland’s slow, exhausted ascent up the stairs is forever haunting. Her final ascent upstairs, in bitter triumph as her returned suitor pounds desperately at the door, is no less affecting. The class of the entire production is underlined by Aaron Copland’s evocative original score, also an Oscar winner. AE

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1940s




KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949)

G.B. (Ealing Studios) 106m BW

Director: Robert Hamer

Producer: Michael Balcon, Michael Relph

Screenplay: Robert Hamer, Roy Horniman, John Dighton, from the novel Israel Rank by Roy Horniman

Photography: Douglas Slocombe

Music: Ernest Irving

Cast: Dennis Price, Valerie Hobson, Joan Greenwood, Alec Guinness, Audrey Fildes, Miles Malleson, Clive Morton, John Penrose, Cecil Ramage, Hugh Griffith, John Salew, Eric Messiter, Lyn Evans, Barbara Leake, Peggy Ann Clifford

Venice Film Festival: Robert Hamer (Golden Lion nomination)

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Among the earliest of the Ealing comedies produced by Sir Michael Balcon’s West London hothouse of comedic creativity, and a prime example of their distinctively British humor, Kind Hearts and Coronets is without equal for grace and savoir faire in black comedy. It is sophisticated, deliciously sly, and resolved with another Ealing trademark, the smart sting in the tale.

Eight members of the snobbish, wealthy, and aristocratic D’Ascoyne family stand between their bitter, coolly self-possessed poor relation Louis Mazzini (suave Dennis Price) and a dukedom, provoking him to mass murder in Robert Hamer’s audaciously elegant black comedy of class. The film was adapted by Hamer and John Dighton from a pungent novel of society decadence, Israel Rank, by Roy Horniman, but it was also arguably influenced by Charlie Chaplin’s more controversial Monsieur Verdoux (1947). In his inexorable, unscrupulous rise, Price’s Machiavellian Mazzini becomes fatefully entangled with two different women: Edith D’Ascoyne (Valerie Hobson, wife of John Profumo, notorious principal of the 1963 sex scandal that brought down the British government), the touchingly gracious widow of one of his victims, and Sibella, the fabulously eccentric, dangerously feline sex kitten played by Ealing favorite Joan Greenwood.

All eight of the clearly inbred, dotty D’Ascoynes—including the hatchetfaced suffragette Lady Agatha who is shot down in a balloon, the bluff general condemned to short-lived enjoyment of an explosive pot of caviar, and the insane admiral who does Mazzini’s job for him by going down with his ship—are famously played by Ealing’s man of a thousand faces, unrecognizable from one film to the next (and in this case from one scene to the next), the delightful Alec Guinness.

Hamer’s all-too-brief directorial heyday peaked with Kind Hearts and Coronets. He had come to the film with a valuable background as an editor and found a balance between the smart dialogue and pithy, satiric visual vignettes. The slick black-and-white work of wartime news cameraman-turned-cinematographer Douglas Slocombe led to a much longer and prolific career: he shot many classic British films of the 1960s and, later, such international hits as the Indiana Jones trilogy. AE

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1940s




GUN CRAZY (1949)

U.S. (King, Pioneer) 86m BW

Director: Joseph H. Lewis

Producer: Frank King, Maurice King

Screenplay: MacKinlay Kantor, Millard Kaufman

Photography: Russell Harlan

Music: Victor Young

Cast: Peggy Cummins, John Dall, Berry Kroeger, Morris Carnovsky, Anabel Shaw, Harry Lewis, Nedrick Young, Russ Tamblyn, Ross Elliott

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Joseph H. Lewis’s cult gem Gun Crazy (a.k.a. Deadly Is the Female) is something of a test case in contemporary debates on the meaning of the critically disputed term film noir. Based loosely on the story of infamous 1930s bandits Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow (the screenplay was developed by MacKinlay Kantor and blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo, the latter here credited as Millard Kaufman to conceal the fact that he was one of the Hollywood Ten), this tale of rural love-on-the-run appears to have little in common with the hard-boiled nocturnal urban underworld that more often defines the noir tradition. But set alongside the similar story of star-crossed lovers in They Live by Night (1948), as well as films that featured down-on-their-luck honest laborers—Desperate (1947), Thieves’ Highway (1949), and The Sound of Fury (1951)—Gun Crazy shares the noir theme of the rootless, marginal man (prevalent during the Depression and a continuing source of anxiety in the years following World War II), which also characterizes canonical noirs such as The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) and Detour (1945), both fatalistic tales of drifters.

From an early age, Bart Tare (John Dall) has been obsessed with firearms. After leaving the army, he meets and instantly falls in love with the stunningly beautiful Annie Laurie Starr (Peggy Cummins), who shares his gun fetishism, having been the sharp-shooting main attraction in a traveling tent show. They set out on a series of robberies that, before their death at the law’s hands, culminates in the holdup of the pay department in a meatpacking plant.

At the formal level, claims for Gun Crazy’s exceptional status among the plethora of B-movies are more than justified in virtue of the film’s aesthetic innovations within low-budget restraints—the long single-shot scene of a bank robbery, the chase through the abattoir—and in Cummins’s peerless characterization of a psychotic femme fatale. This timeless tale of amour fou was a major influence on Jean-Luc Godard’s French New Wave classic Breathless (1960). PS

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1940s




ADAM’S RIB (1949)

U.S. (MGM) 101m BW

Director: George Cukor

Producer: Lawrence Weingarten

Screenplay: Ruth Gordon, Garson Kanin

Photography: George J. Folsey

Music: Cole Porter, Miklós Rózsa

Cast: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Holliday, Tom Ewell, Francis Attinger, David Wayne, Jean Hagen, Hope Emerson, Eve March, Clarence Kolb, Emerson Treacy, Polly Moran, Will Wright, Elizabeth Flournoy

Oscar nomination: Ruth Gordon, Garson Kanin (screenplay)

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This choice battle-of-the-sexes comedy has been an inspiration for countless other films and television series about combative but sexually combustible couples. Of the nine movies legendary partners Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made together between 1942 and 1967, Adam’s Rib is arguably the best, still crackling with witty dialogue, spirited discussion of double standards and sexual stereotypes, and wonderful performances. The screenplay was written by Tracy and Hepburn’s great pals, the married team of Ruth Gordon (the actress who won an Oscar in Rosemary’s Baby) and Garson Kanin. The true story that sparked the project was that of husband-and-wife lawyers William and Dorothy Whitney, who represented Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Massey in their divorce, then divorced each other and married their respective clients.

It doesn’t quite come to that in Adam’s Rib. When sweet, ditsy blonde Doris Attinger—played by sensationally funny Judy Holliday making her debut in the role that launched her meteoric career—is charged with the attempted murder of her two-timing husband Warren (Tom Ewell), proto-feminist attorney Amanda “Pinkie” Bonner (Hepburn) agrees to defend her. But Amanda’s husband, Adam “Pinky” Bonner (Tracy), is the prosecuting attorney, and their courtroom battle quickly extends into the bedroom, hostilities aggravated by the attentions shown Amanda by smitten songwriter Kip (David Wayne), who composes “Farewell, Amanda” in her honor (a song written by Cole Porter).

Director George Cukor, recognizing the inherent theatricality of courtroom situations, deliberately keeps the proceedings stagy after the comedy-suspense opening sequence of Doris tailing Warren from work to the tryst with his floozy mistress, Beryl (Jean Hagen), and the inept shooting. The film’s long single takes give Hepburn free rein for her outrageously crafty showboating in court and allow Tracy to work up his indignation at her tactics and principles. Highlights include brainy Amanda’s early questioning of dimwitted Doris, and the spectacle of Adam tearfully getting in touch with his feminine side to get back into his wife’s good graces. Although some of the arguments may seem quaint today, the sophistication is undiminished. AE

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1940s




WHISKY GALORE! (1949)

G.B. (Ealing Studios, Rank) 82m BW

Language: English / Gaelic

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Producer: Michael Balcon, Monja Danischewsky

Screenplay: Angus MacPhail and Compton MacKenzie, from novel by Compton MacKenzie

Photography: Gerald Gibbs

Music: Ernest Irving

Cast: Basil Radford, Catherine Lacey, Bruce Seton, Joan Greenwood, Wylie Watson, Gabrielle Blunt, Gordon Jackson, Jean Cadell, James Robertson Justice, Morland Graham, John Gregson, James Woodburn, James Anderson, Jameson Clark, Duncan Macrae

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Along with Passport to Pimlico and Kind Hearts and Coronets (both also 1949), Whisky Galore! was in the first, miraculous vintage of celebrated postwar comedies from Britain’s Ealing Studios under paternal producer Sir Michael Balcon. Universally admired, the film was key in establishing the distinctive, self-deprecating, and understated satiric tone of those following, as well as the common thread of defiant little people triumphing over those more powerful.

Alexander “Sandy” Mackendrick’s influential culture-clash comedy, shot beautifully on location on Barra in the Outer Hebrides in the style of a mock documentary, sees the sanctimonious, by-the-book, and teetotaling English Home Guard captain Basil Radford hunt for a foundered ship’s “salvaged” cargo of malt whisky. Intended for America, the cargo is seized by thirsty islanders deprived by wartime, and Radford is well and truly foiled by the wily natives of Todday, who run rings around him and the Excise men. The story, immortalized by writer Compton MacKenzie, was inspired by the true “disappearance” of 50,000 cases of whisky after a cargo ship was wrecked off the Isle of Eriskay. MacKenzie himself appears in the film as the SS Cabinet Minister’s captain.

Whisky Galore! is more dated than some of the other Ealing comedies, though the quaint charm is countered by the film’s hectic hilarity, the affectionate and astute social observation, the authenticity of Hebridean life, and the delightful performances. Ealing’s leading English enchantress Joan Greenwood is superb as the canny publican Macroon’s (Wylie Watson) flirtatious daughter, as are the mainly genuine Scots players like James Robertson Justice, Gordon Jackson, and the droll narrator, Finlay Currie. The universal appeal of the film’s antiauthoritarian humor lies in its idealization of a remote, isolated village world full of eccentrics, cards, pretty lasses, and gutsy, commonsensical folk pricking the balloons of the pompous and bureaucratic types opposing them.

The Scottish (though American-born) Mackendrick, director of three of Ealing’s most sparkling gems (the other two being The Man in the White Suit [1951] and The Ladykillers [1955]) would prove equally impressive directing drama later in his career, after his move to America, notably with the 1957 film Sweet Smell of Success. AE

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1940s




WHITE HEAT (1949)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 114m BW

Director: Raoul Walsh

Producer: Louis F. Edelman

Screenplay: Virginia Kellogg, Ivan Goff, Ben Roberts

Photography: Sidney Hickox

Music: Max Steiner

Cast: James Cagney, Virginia Mayo, Edmond O’Brien, Margaret Wycherly, Steve Cochran, John Archer, Wally Cassell, Fred Clark

Oscar nomination: Virginia Kellogg (screenplay)

“Do you know what to do?” barks Cody (James Cagney) at his sidekick at the start of a daring train robbery. When the guy starts replying, Cody cuts him off: “Just do it, stop gabbing!” This headlong, action-only attitude sums up the drive of Raoul Walsh’s films, which (as Peter Lloyd once remarked) “take the pulse of an individual energy” and embed it within a “demented trajectory out of which is born the construction of a rhythm.” Few films are as taut, sustained, and economical in their telling as White Heat.

Walsh is a relentlessly linear, forward-moving director whose work harkens back to silent cinema—as in that exciting car-meets-train opener. But he also explores the intriguing, complicating possibilities of twentieth-century psychology. On the job, Cody kills ruthlessly. Once holed up like a caged animal with his gang—as he will later be imprisoned—his psychopathology begins to emerge: indifference to others’ suffering, fixation on a tough mom, and searing migraines that send him berserk.

Cody, as immortalized in Cagney’s powerhouse performance, embodies the ultimate contradiction that brings down movie gangsters: fantastic egotism and dreams of invincibility (“Look, Ma, top of the world!”) undermined by all-too-human dependencies and vulnerabilities. AM

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1940s




THE RECKLESS MOMENT (1949)

U.S. (Columbia) 82m BW

Director: Max Ophüls

Producer: Walter Wanger

Screenplay: Mel Dinelli, Henry Garson

Photography: Burnett Guffey

Music: Hans J. Salter

Cast: James Mason, Joan Bennett, Geraldine Brooks, Henry O’Neill, Shepperd Strudwick, David Blair, Roy Roberts

The Reckless Moment is an unusual film noir in that it reverses the sexes in a replay of the familiar story (as in Double Indemnity [1944] and Scarlet Street [1945]) of an innocent who gets involved with a seductive no-good and is embroiled in crime. Here, class and respectability assume the status usually accorded sex and money as housewife Lucia Harper (Joan Bennett) loses her grip on suburbia when the sleazy specimen (Shepperd Strudwick) who has been seeing her daughter (Geraldine Brooks) is semiaccidentally killed under suspicious circumstances and she moves his corpse to make things look better.

Lucia’s nemesis is played by James Mason, oddly but effectively cast as an Irish lowlife, who starts out blackmailing her but begins, disturbingly, to make sincere romantic overtures. The focus of the film then changes as the criminal is driven to make a sacrifice that will restore the heroine’s life but also suggests that Bennett—who, after all, was the tramp in Scarlet Street—may have unwittingly been manipulating him to her advantage all along. Viennese director Max Ophüls is more interested in irony and emotion than crime and drama, which gives this a uniquely nerve-fraying feel, and he nudges the lead actors into revelatory, unusual performances. KN

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1940s




THE THIRD MAN (1949)

G.B. (British Lion, London) 104m BW

Language: English / German

Director: Carol Reed

Producer: Hugh Perceval, Carol Reed

Screenplay: Graham Greene, Alexander Korda

Photography: Robert Krasker

Music: Henry Love, Anton Karas

Cast: Joseph Cotten, Alida Valli, Orson Welles, Trevor Howard, Paul Hörbiger, Ernst Deutsch, Erich Ponto, Siegfried Breuer, Hedwig Bleibtreu, Bernard Lee, Wilfrid Hyde-White

Oscar: Robert Krasker (photography)

Oscar nominations: Carol Reed (director), Oswald Hafenrichter (editing)

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Written for the screen by Graham Greene—the still-in-print book is actually a novelization!—Carol Reed’s The Third Man effectively transfers the urban nightmare world of Hollywood film noir of the 1940s to a European setting. Picking up the messy aftermath of the war and providing a five-years-on follow-up to the works of British thriller writers and European exile filmmakers, it shows the postwar consequences of movements expressed in early Hitchcock films (The Lady Vanishes [1938] and Secret Agent [1936]), midperiod Fritz Lang (the Greene-derived Ministry of Fear [1944]), the Geoffrey Household-inspired Man Hunt (1941), and Eric Ambler adaptations like Journey into Fear (1942) and The Mask of Dimitrios (1944). Occupied Vienna, divided between four military powers and plagued by black-marketing scoundrels, is as fantastical a setting as any devised for studio exoticism, but Reed and his crew were able to shoot on location, amid rubble and glitz, capturing a world of fear that was all too real.

Into this devastated realm of corruption comes American innocent Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten). A writer of pulp Westerns, he was somehow asked to deliver a serious literary lecture to a stuffy cultural group. Only the military police sergeant (Bernard Lee) at the back of the hall has ever read any of his work. Holly is shocked to learn that his boyhood friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) has recently met a mysterious death and is suspected of involvement in an especially dastardly racket. Holly gets mixed up with one of Harry’s girlfriends (Alida Valli) and a succession of sinister eccentrics, in search of the “third man” who was seen carrying Lime’s body away. Harry, as everyone except Holly knows, turns out to have faked his own death to get away from policeman Calloway (Trevor Howard).

After all these years, it isn’t exactly a surprise, but the moment of revelation as Welles’s Harry is caught by the beam of a streetlight as a cat nuzzles his shoes is still magic. Anton Karras’s haunting and unforgettable zither theme “plung-ka-plungs” on the soundtrack, and Welles spins a virtual cameo into one of the screen’s greatest charming villains. The Third Man’s most famous speech—the “cuckoo clock” anecdote, delivered up above the “little dots” on the Vienna Ferris Wheel—was written by Welles on the spur of the moment as an addition to Greene’s script, filling out the character and perhaps securing the picture’s lasting greatness.

A rare British film that is as accomplished technically as the best of classic Hollywood—Reed never did anything as masterly again—The Third Man is an outstanding mix of political thriller, weird romance, gothic mystery, and black-and-white romantic agony. Welles, who is truly brilliant for five minutes, has hogged all the press, but it’s a perfectly acted film, with wonderful work from Cotten as the bewildered and disappointed hero—his “literary lecture” is priceless—and the luminous beauty of Italian star Valli as the heroine-by-default. It’s a film that constantly shimmers, in its nocturnal cityscapes, its glowing haunted faces, and the gushing waters of the sewers in which Lime is finally flushed away. KN

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1940s




ON THE TOWN (1949)

U.S. (MGM) 98m Technicolor

Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

Producer: Roger Edens, Arthur Freed

Screenplay: Adolph Green and Betty Comden, from their play

Photography: Harold Rosson

Music: Leonard Bernstein, Saul Chaplin, Roger Edens

Cast: Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Betty Garrett, Ann Miller, Jules Munshin, Vera-Ellen, Florence Bates, Alice Pearce, George Meader, Judy Holliday

Oscar: Roger Edens, Lennie Hayton (music)

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Two sailors, Gabey (Gene Kelly) and Chip (Frank Sinatra), in the company of cab driver Brunhilde (Betty Garrett), burst into an art school’s life-modeling session. They gasp at the sight of a naked woman, glimpsed from the back. The model turns: She is merely wearing a backless dress. Then our trio rushes out through the swinging doors they entered through: revealed are a third sailor, Ozzie (Jules Munshin), and his anthropologist girlfriend Claire (Ann Miller), furtively kissing.

The lightly subversive fun of On the Town is contained in this elaborate gag. It is basically about a hunt for casual sex: Three sailors, on twenty-four-hour leave, want to get laid. Of course, on the surface, the film attempts to disavow this base impulse—there is, after all, Gabey’s love for the sweet, innocent “Miss Turnstiles,” Ivy (Vera-Ellen)—but the proof is everywhere: in cultural references (surrealist art; a museum devoted to “homo erectus”), double entendres (Brunhilde: “He wanted to see the sights, and I showed him plenty”), and above all in the high energy of the song-and-dance numbers, into which all eroticism is artfully sublimated—though there’s nothing particularly hidden in Miller’s bravura performance of “Prehistoric Man!”

On the Town hangs many, varied delights on its simple but driving “lifetime in a day” premise, codirectors Kelly and Stanley Donen still some years away from their ideal of the dramatically integrated musical. Once the sailors split up, the film becomes especially busy, ranging from low burlesque (“You Can Count On Me”) to high ballet, the latter via the Sinatra—Garret duet “Come Up to My Place,” a highlight of Leonard Bernstein’s jazzy score. Proceedings make room for all manner of reveries (Gabey’s zany imagining of Ivy as a gal for all seasons), digressions, and gags.

The left-wing aspect of Kelly’s life and career is often overlooked. On the Town has, lurking under its surface alongside that sex drive, a political aspiration: This “city symphony” (taking advantage of some terrific location photography) is truly an ode to the joys and woes of ordinary workers, cramming experiences into the cracks of a punishing schedule. AM

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1950s


Contents

Orphée (1950)

The Asphalt Jungle (1950)

Rashomon (1950)

Winchester ‘73 (1950)

Rio Grande (1950)

All About Eve (1950)

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

Los Olvidados (1950)

In a Lonely Place (1950)

The Big Carnival (1951)

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

Strangers on a Train (1951)

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

Pandora and The Flying Dutchman (1951)

The African Queen (1951)

Journal D’un Curé De Campagne (1951)

An American In Paris (1951)

A Place In The Sun (1951)

The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

The Quiet Man (1952)

Jeux Interdits (1952)

Angel Face (1952)

Singin’ In The Rain (1952)

Ikiru (1952)

Europa ‘51 (1952)

The Bad and The Beautiful (1952)

The Big Sky (1952)

High Noon (1952)

Umberto D (1952)

Le Carrosse D’or (1953)

The Bigamist (1953)

The Band Wagon (1953)

Madame De . . . (1953)

From Here to Eternity (1953)

Tokyo Story (1953)

Roman Holiday (1953)

Le Salaire De La Peur (1953)

The Naked Spur (1953)

Pickup on South Street (1953)

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953)

The Big Heat (1953)

Les Vacances De M. Hulot (1953)

Viaggio In Italia (1953)

Ugetsu Monogatari (1953)

Shane (1953)

Beat The Devil (1953)

Johnny Guitar (1954)

On The Waterfront (1954)

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)

Les Diaboliques (1954)

Animal Farm (1954)

Rear Window (1954)

A Star is Born (1954)

The Barefoot Contessa (1954)

La Strada (1954)

Shichinin No Samurai (1954)

Senso (1954)

Silver Lode (1954)

Carmen Jones (1954)

Sanshô Dayû (1954)

Salt of The Earth (1954)

Artists and Models (1955)

Guys and Dolls (1955)

Pather Panchali (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Les Maîtres Fous (1955)

Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer (1955)

The Ladykillers (1955)

Marty (1955)

Ordet (1955)

Bob Le Flambeur (1955)

Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

The Man from Laramie (1955)

Rebel without a Cause (1955)

The Phenix City Story (1955)

Sommarnattens Leende (1955)

Nuit Et Brouillard (1955)

The Night of The Hunter (1955)

Lola Montès (1955)

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Biruma No Tategoto (1956)

The Searchers (1956)

Un Condamné à Mort S’est échappé Ou Le Vent Souffle Où Il Veut (1956)

Written on The Wind (1956)

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

Giant (1956)

All That Heaven Allows (1956)

Invasion of The Body Snatchers (1956)

The Wrong Man (1956)

Bigger Than Life (1956)

High Society (1956)

The Ten Commandments (1956)

12 Angry Men (1957)

Det Sjunde Inseglet (1957)

An Affair to Remember (1957)

Smultronstället (1957)

Le Notti Di Cabiria (1957)

Kumonosu Jo (1957)

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Aparajito (1957)

Gunfight at The Ok Corral (1957)

The Bridge on The River Kwai (1957)

Bharat Mata (1957)

Letjat Zhuravli (1957)

Paths of Glory (1957)

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Man of The West (1958)

Touch of Evil (1958)

Bab El Hadid (1958)

Gigi (1958)

The Defiant Ones (1958)

Vertigo (1958)

Popiól I Diament (1958)

Dracula (1958)

Mon Oncle (1958)

Jalsaghar (1958)

Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959)

North by Northwest (1959)

Some Like it Hot (1959)

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

Les Yeux Sans Visage (1959)

Ride Lonesome (1959)

Orfeu Negro (1959)

Shadows (1959)

Apur Sansar (1959)

Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959)

Ben-Hur (1959)

Pickpocket (1959)

Rio Bravo (1959)

Ukigusa (1959)


1950s




ORPHÉE (1950)

ORPHEUS

France (André Paulve, Palais Royal) 112m BW

Language: French

Director: Jean Cocteau

Producer: André Paulvé

Screenplay: Jean Cocteau

Photography: Nicolas Hayer

Music: Georges Auric

Cast: Jean Marais, François Périer, María Casarès, Marie Déa, Henri Crémieux, Juliette Gréco, Roger Blin, Edouard Dermithe, Maurice Carnege, René Worms, Raymond Faure, Pierre Bertin, Jacques Varennes, Claude Mauriac

“It is the privilege of legends to be timeless,” notes the narrator at the outset. And so it has proved for Jean Cocteau’s fantasy film Orpheus, an infinitely strange and beguiling allegory that is also a kind of coded autobiography. Orphée (played by Cocteau’s lover, Jean Marais) is an acclaimed poet who has fallen out of fashion. After a despised rival is knocked over by two uniformed motorcyclists, he becomes fascinated with the Princess Death (María Casarès), but when his neglected wife Eurydice (Marie Déa) dies, Orphée follows into the underworld to reclaim her.

Looked at simply as a special-effects movie, this is still a landmark film for Cocteau’s ingenious use of reverse motion and back projection. Mirrors are the doors to the other side (“Look at a mirror for a lifetime you will see Death at work”), though only poets can move through them at will. Purgatory is a slow-motion limbo where the laws of physics are suspended. Although the enigmatic narrative is occasionally confusing (it doesn’t help that Orphée and Cocteau alike seem more taken with Death than with Eurydice), the film’s poetic imagination is spellbinding. TCh

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1950s




THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950)

U.S. (MGM) 112m BW

Director: John Huston

Producer: Arthur Hornblow Jr.

Screenplay: W.R. Burnett, Ben Maddow, John Huston, from novel by W.R. Burnett

Photography: Harold Rosson

Music: Miklós Rózsa

Cast: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire, Commissioner Hardy, Marc Lawrence, Barry Kelley, Anthony Caruso, Teresa Celli, Marilyn Monroe, William “Wee Willie” Davis, Dorothy Tree, Brad Dexter, John Maxwell

Oscar nominations: John Huston (director), Ben Maddow, John Huston (screenplay), Sam Jaffe (actor in support role), Harold Rosson (photography)

Perhaps the most finely detailed “caper” film Hollywood ever produced, John Huston’s study of a jewelry store robbery shows the business relationships between career criminals of different kinds—from a mastermind plotter to the “box man” who breaks into the safe, to the “muscle” needed to handle the guards. Such crime is merely “a left-handed form of endeavor,” suggests the “respectable” businessman who is to fence the proceeds.

The Asphalt Jungle concentrates not only on the robbery but also on the personal lives of the gang members, who are individualized with notable touches of dialogue and visual style. Huston expertly handles a fine ensemble of actors, including Marilyn Monroe—who plays an old man’s dizzy-headed mistress in one of her most important early roles. As in most Huston films, the thematic emphasis is on the joys and sorrows of male bonding, with the criminals’ inevitable defeat by the law—and their own weaknesses—rendered almost heroic. The gang leader Doc Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) is captured because he lingers in a café watching a beautiful young girl dance, and tough guy Dix (Sterling Hayden) bleeds to death as he tries to return to the country and the horses he loves. Such melodramatic elements contrast interestingly with the film’s otherwise grim portrayal of alienation, betrayal, and sociopathy. RBP

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1950s




RASHOMON (1950)

Japan (Daiei) 88m BW

Language: Japanese

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Producer: Minoru Jingo, Masaichi Nagata

Screenplay: Ryunosuke Akutagawa, Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, from the stories Rashomon and In a Grove by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Photography: Kazuo Miyagawa

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Fumiko Honma, Daisuke Katô.

Oscar: Akira Kurosawa (honorary award)

Oscar nomination: So Matsuyama, H. Motsumoto (art direction)

Venice Film Festival: Akira Kurosawa (Golden Lion), Akira Kurosawa (Italian film critics award)

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Three travelers collect under a ruined temple during a storm. Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), Priest (Minoru Chiaki), and Commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) build a fire and wonder about a troubling story. So begins the story-within-a-story about a married couple and bandit who meet on a forest road. Woodcutter later finds the husband’s corpse and testifies before a police commission investigating what happened. The explanation so horrifies Priest and entertains Commoner it occupies them through the storm with four depictions of a crime.

Plotted with competing points-of-view in flashback style, framed with a fluid, moving camera, and shot under a canopy of dappled light, Rashomon details unreliable perspectives. The veracity of on-screen characters and depicted actions are therefore rendered false and misleading. Facts are submitted into evidence but immediately questioned. Disagreement among the overlapping stories of husband, wife, and bandit complicate straightforward reportage. In short, every narrator is untrustworthy, along with the overall film.

Nothing less than an epistemological nightmare, Akira Kurosawa’s Oscar winner still concludes with an infusion of moral goodness. Although Rashomon implicitly explores the lost possibility of renewal and redemption, its central theme about discovering truth as a distinction between good and evil is upheld through simple acts of kindness and sacrifice.

As the forest road is explored from the perspective of the bandit Tajomaru (Toshirô Mifune), he is characterized as a hellion. After seeing Masako (Machiko Kyô), he ravishes her into willing submission before cutting loose her samurai husband Takehiro (Masayuki Mori) so the two men can fight until the latter is killed. From Masako’s point of view, she is raped, shamed, then rebuffed by her husband, and submitting to hysterical rage she kills him. Agreeing only that he was killed, Takehiro speaks through a medium (Fumiko Honma) explaining how his wife equalled Tajomaru’s passion before demanding his death at the hands of the bandit. Seeing no good result in murder, Tajomaru flees, as does Masako, leaving Takehiro behind to commit suicide.

Each story is told in a self-serving way. Tajomaru is therefore a ruthless criminal, Masako a set-upon innocent, and Takehiro a proud warrior. All true, it seems, until Woodcutter explains what he saw from the shadows. His perspective affirms the wife’s shallowness, the bandit’s false bravado, and the husband’s cowardice. It also conceals his own complicity in the crime until Commoner draws this out, dismissing the search for truth.

Kurosawa ends the bleak tale on a positive note. An abandoned baby is discovered beneath the temple ruin. Woodcutter intoduces the idea of human goodness by taking it upon himself in redemption to care for the orphan. A consistent conclusion, given Rashomon’s formal schizophrenia in a brilliant narrative structure—Kurosawa’s first masterwork. GC-Q

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1950s




WINCHESTER ‘73 (1950)

U.S. (Universal) 92m BW

Director: Anthony Mann

Producer: Aaron Rosenberg

Screenplay: Borden Chase, Stuart N. Lake, Robert L. Richards, from story by Stuart N. Lake

Photography: William H. Daniels

Music: Walter Scharf

Cast: James Stewart, Shelley Winters, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally, Millard Mitchell, Charles Drake, John McIntire, Will Geer, Jay C. Flippen, Rock Hudson, John Alexander, Steve Brodie, James Millican, Abner Biberman, Tony Curtis

The first of eight collaborations between director Anthony Mann and actor James Stewart, Winchester ’73 sets the tone for this legendary partnership. The Westerns these two men made together are unusually bitter and starkly beautiful, with fascinating overtones of moral uncertainty.

Winchester ’73 revolves around a high-powered rifle that changes hands repeatedly. Each man who comes into possession of it is changed in some way—sometimes for good, sometimes for bad. It all comes to a head in a shooting contest, for which the prize is the titular rifle itself.

The cast is extremely strong. Shelley Winters is excellent, and the supporting players include such versatile character actors as Millard Mitchell, Stephen McNally, Will Geer, and the incomparable Dan Duryea. (See if you can spot a young Tony Curtis, and Rock Hudson as an Indian brave!)

Now regarded as an actor of unusual versatility, Stewart was, at the time of the film’s production, concerned about perceptions regarding his limited breadth. His character, Lin McAdam, is an unusual hero—somewhat tentative, even if he is the film’s moral center. Stewart’s performances for Mann would get increasingly complex and cynical in films like The Man from Laramie and The Naked Spur, proving beyond a doubt that this master of the craft could adeptly handle any role that came his way. EdeS

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1950s




RIO GRANDE (1950)

U.S. (Argosy, Republic) 105m BW

Director: John Ford

Producer: Merian C. Cooper, John Ford, Herbert J. Yates

Screenplay: James Warner Bellah, James Kevin McGuinness, from the story “Mission With No Record” by James Warner Bellah

Photography: Bert Glennon

Music: Dale Evans, Stan Jones, Tex Owens, Victor Young

Cast: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Ben Johnson, Claude Jarman Jr., Harry Carey Jr., Chill Wills, J. Carrol Naish, Victor McLaglen, Grant Withers, Peter Ortiz, Steve Pendleton, Karolyn Grimes, Alberto Morin, Stan Jones, Fred Kennedy

The last installment of John Ford’s “Cavalry Trilogy”—Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) being the other two—Rio Grande is a minor work, albeit a key one, allegedly undertaken to secure financing for the director’s personal project, The Quiet Man (1952). It’s less revisionary, mythmaking, or elegiac than the previous Cavalry films, offering a mix of soapsuds, barracks larking, and hard-riding action.

Crusty Yankee Captain Kirby York (John Wayne, not quite recreating his Kirby York of Fort Apache) reconciles with estranged Southern wife Kathleen (Maureen O’Hara)—whose mansion he burned down during the Civil War—in order to share the raising of their raw recruit son (Claude Jarman Jr.). The son becomes a man under his father’s influence without losing his mother’s sensitivity. York leads his men in pursuit of Indian raiders who have snuck up from Mexico with kidnap in mind, suggesting the embryo of Ford and Wayne’s masterpiece, The Searchers (1956). This is a less neurotic, more action-oriented quest and a rare Ford movie that unquestioningly adopts a goodies versus baddies view of the Indian wars.

Ben Johnson shows off his rodeo skills and great riding stunt work, and the Sons of the Pioneers add to the folkloric feel with appropriate ballads, though “Bold Fenian Men” is an unlikely favorite out West in the 1870s. KN

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1950s




ALL ABOUT EVE (1950)

U.S. (Fox) 138m BW

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Producer: Darryl F. Zanuck

Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz, from the story “The Wisdom of Eve” by Mary Orr

Photography: Milton R. Krasner

Music: Alfred Newman

Cast: Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Gregory Ratoff, Barbara Bates, Marilyn Monroe, Thelma Ritter, Walter Hampden, Randy Stuart, Craig Hill, Leland Harris, Barbara White

Oscars: Darryl F. Zanuck (best picture), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (director), Joseph L. Mankiewicz (screenplay), George Sanders (actor in support role), Edith Head, Charles Le Maire (costume)

Oscar nominations: Anne Baxter, Bette Davis (actress), Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter (actress in support role), Lyle R. Wheeler, George W. Davis, Thomas Little, Walter M. Scott (art direction), Milton R. Krasner (photography), Barbara McLean (editing), Alfred Newman (music)

Cannes Film Festival: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (special jury prize), Bette Davis (actress)

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Considered one of the sharpest and darkest films ever made about show business, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 drama was taken from a 1946 Cosmopolitan magazine short story called “The Wisdom of Eve,” which was also made into a radio production. Avoided by other studios for four years, the combination of Mankiewicz’s cynical, witty screenplay, and a high-caliber cast transformed the story into an enormous cinematic success. All About Eve was nominated for a then-record fourteen Academy Awards and won six, including Best Picture and Best Supporting Actor (for George Sanders), as well as Best Director and Best Screenplay awards for Mankiewicz. Nominations went to Bette Davis, Anne Baxter, Celeste Holm, and Thelma Ritter, thus holding the record for most female acting nominations in a single film.

Opening with an acceptance speech given by gracious young actress Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter), the film pans over the audience. Addison DeWitt (Sanders) begins a narration which goes back in time to the real tale of how such success was achieved. Bette Davis is Margo Channing, an aging, forty-year-old Broadway actress who befriends Eve, a young fan apparently plagued by a hard life. Margo’s dresser Birdie (Ritter) is the first to see through Eve’s sob story, saying, “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.” Eve repays Margo’s trust by worming into her idol’s professional and personal life with more than a few lies. Eve goes on to deceive Margo’s best friend (Holm), beguile her loyal but devious critic (Sanders), and vainly attempt to steal away her fiancé Bill (Gary Merrill, Davis’s real-life husband). In a brief but dazzling cameo, Marilyn Monroe appears on the arm of DeWitt at Margo’s party, the same party where Margo utters the now famous line, “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Having also won an Oscar in 1949 for A Letter to Three Wives, some see Mankiewicz’s victory in All About Eve as final vindication of his talent in comparison to brother Herman, who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Citizen Kane. That debate aside, All About Eve is widely considered to be the crowning achievement in Davis’s lengthy career; its only flaw is Baxter, who seems to be nothing but pure ambition in womanly form. KK

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1950s




SUNSET BLVD. (1950)

U.S. (Paramount) 110m BW

Director: Billy Wilder

Producer: Charles Brackett

Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman, Jr., from the story A Can of Beans by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder

Photography: John F. Seitz

Music: Jay Livingston, Franz Waxman

Cast: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark, Lloyd Gough, Jack Webb, Franklyn Farnum, Larry J. Blake, Charles Dayton, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, H.B. Warner

Oscars: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman, Jr. (screenplay), Hans Dreier, John Meehan, Sam Comer, Ray Moyer (art direction), Franz Waxman (music)

Oscar nominations: Charles Brackett (best picture), Billy Wilder (director), William Holden (actor), Gloria Swanson (actress), Erich von Stroheim (actor in support role), Nancy Olson (actress in support role), John F. Seitz (photography), Doane Harrison, Arthur P. Schmidt (editing)

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Unemployed screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden), floating dead in a swimming pool, recounts his doomed personal and professional involvement with megalomaniac silent-movie queen Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). A flapper vampire whose attempts to stay youthful into her fifties paradoxically make her seem a thousand years old, Norma lives in a decaying mansion on Sunset Boulevard, holding a midnight funeral for her pet monkey (“He must have been a very important chimp,” muses Joe), scrawling an unproducible script, and dreaming of an impossible comeback (“I hate that word! It’s a return!”) as Salome. In attendance is a sinister butler (Erich von Stroheim) who used to be her favored director and, incidentally, her first husband.

Usually not a filmmaker given to ostentatious visuals, Wilder is encouraged by this scenario to create compositions that evoke the lair of the Phantom of the Opera and Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu, a huge close-up of white-gloved hands playing a wheezy pipe organ as the trapped gigolo flutters in the background. Wilder’s acidic, yet nostalgic, traipse through the film industry’s haunted house is a picture that can be endlessly rewatched, even after its influence has seeped into the horror genre (Robert Aldrich’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? [1962]) and spun off an Andrew Lloyd Webber stage adaptation—combining strange affection for has-been Norma and never-was Joe with a somewhat sadistic use of such ravaged and frozen silent faces as Buster Keaton, H. B. Warner, and Anna Q. Nilsson.

One of Sunset Blvd.’s unstressed ironies is that although Norma can’t get away with her insanity (“No one leaves a star!”), the industry allows and indeed encourages everyone else to act like a monster: Cecil B. DeMille (playing himself) gently reminds Norma that the picture business has changed, but Wilder concludes his scene by having the camera note his polished riding boots and absurdly outdated on-set strut. Although they recognized their chances for one last blaze of glory, Swanson (who took the role after Mary Pickford turned it down) and von Stroheim (who is forced to watch an extract from Queen Kelly, an unfinished 1920s disaster he directed Swanson in) understood the cruelty of Wilder’s vision and the way he made monsters of all of them. It’s a hard and cynical film, which struggles with its doomed but sweet “normal” love affair: in the end, Norma is as terrified that Joe is writing a script (“Untitled Love Story”) with D-girl Nancy Olson as she is that he will leave her for a younger rival. Swanson (“I am big, it’s the pictures that got small”) is vibrant in her madness, climaxing with a moment of unforgettable horror-glamor as she vamps toward a newsreel cameraman during her arrest for murder and declares that she is ready for her close-up, even as Wilder pulls back to frame her in a long shot that emphasizes her isolation in insanity as the big carnival of a celebrity murder scandal begins. This points the way to Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951) and a culture of media-exploited crime that remains horribly alive more than half a century on. KN

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1950s




LOS OLVIDADOS (1950)

THE YOUNG AND THE DAMNED

Mexico (Ultramar) 85m BW

Language: Spanish

Director: Luis Buñuel

Producer: Óscar Dancigers, Sergio Kogan, Jaime A. Menasce

Screenplay: Luis Alcoriza, Luis Buñuel

Photography: Gabriel Figueroa

Music: Rodolfo Halffter, Gustavo Pittaluga

Cast: Alfonso Mejía, Estela Inda, Miguel Inclán, Roberto Cobo, Alma Delia Fuentes, Francisco Jambrina, Jesús Navarro, Efraín Arauz, Sergio Villarreal, Jorge Pérez, Javier Amézcua, Mário Ramírez

Cannes Film Festival: Luis Buñuel (director)

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Although Los Olvidados invokes many conventions of social-problem films, it goes far beyond them. Set in the slums of Mexico City, Luis Buñuel’s scathing masterpiece centers on two doomed boys: Pedro (Alfonso Mejía), who struggles to be good, and the older, incorrigible Jaibo (Roberto Cobo), who keeps popping up like a demon brother to lead Pedro astray. Critical of Italian Neorealism, Buñuel demanded that the concept of realism be expanded to include such essentials as dream, poetry, and irrationality—represented by Pedro’s nightmare, in which tangled threads of guilt and wish-fulfillment resolve into the sensational image of a slab of raw meat offered by the hungry boy’s mother, and by Jaibo’s dying vision, in which the angel of death appears as a mangy dog leading him down a long, dark road.

Other lost souls in Buñuel’s city of the damned include the nasty blind beggar Carmelo (Miguel Inclán); the abandoned boy Ojitos (Mário Ramírez), enslaved by Carmelo; the nymphet Meche (Alma Delia Fuentes), whose bare thighs are splashed with leche in one of the film’s many provocative images; and the virtuous Julián (Javier Amézcua), quickly slaughtered by Jaibo. Borrowing a tag line from Nashville (1975), one could say that the final essential character is you, the hypocrite spectator. A crucial factor that elevates Los Olvidados above other social-problem films is its aggressive discomfiting of the viewer—most startlingly when Pedro, sulking in a reform school, hurls an egg at the camera.

In less spectacular but still striking ways, Los Olvidados discourages the spectator from settling into the position of noble sensitivity commonly cultivated by liberal message films. For one thing, the tone is too caustic, distancing, and contradictory—as when the pathetic spectacle of blind Carmelo beaten by Jaibo’s gang is capped with a derisive shot of a gawking chicken. In addition, Buñuel neatly sidesteps a veritable catalog of message-film cop-outs, including the use of a surrogate figure to guide our feelings and the concentration on special cases to ameliorate the larger problem. Los Olvidados has been criticized for callousness and a lack of constructive solutions, but Buñuel is an artist, not a legislator, and the compassion of this remarkably honest film might be difficult to recognize only because it isn’t cushioned with sentimentality. MR

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1950s




IN A LONELY PLACE (1950)

U.S. (Columbia, Santana) 94m BW

Director: Nicholas Ray

Producer: Henry S. Kesler, Robert Lord

Screenplay: Dorothy B. Hughes, Edmund H. North, Andrew Solt, from novel by Dorothy B. Hughes

Photography: Burnett Guffey

Music: George Antheil

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid, Art Smith, Jeff Donnell, Martha Stewart, Robert Warwick, Morris Ankrum, William Ching, Steven Geray, Hadda Brooks

In a Lonely Place qualifies as a masterpiece on many grounds: as the single best film of cult director Nicholas Ray; as a uniquely romantic and doom-haunted noir drama; as a showcase for personal best performances by Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame; and as one of the most insightful films about Hollywood.

Short-fused screenwriter Dix Steele (Bogart) is suspected of an especially vicious murder, but his next-door neighbor Laurel Gray (Grahame) can give him an alibi. This leads the pair into a passionate affair that is undermined as Laurel becomes terrified by Dix’s violent streak, coming to wonder if he really did commit the murder. After years of playing romantic tough guys, Bogart here gets deeper inside his own persona, revealing the neurotic edge that might have made Sam Spade or Rick Blaine unstable and becoming absolutely terrifying in the sequences where he explodes in fist-frenzy at the deserving and undeserving alike.

The film’s downbeat subject matter is rendered exhilarating by Ray’s dark visuals and a streak of almost surrealist poetry. Dorothy B. Hughes’s fine novel is interestingly adapted: in the book, Steele really does turn out to be the murderer, but the screenplay is actually bleaker in that finally what matters isn’t that he’s innocent but that he easily could not be. KN

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1950s




THE BIG CARNIVAL (1951)

U.S. (Paramount) 111m BW

Language: English / Latin

Director: Billy Wilder

Producer: William Schorr, Billy Wilder

Screenplay: Walter Newman, Lesser Samuels, Billy Wilder

Photography: Charles Lang

Music: Hugo Friedhofer

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Robert Arthur, Porter Hall, Frank Cady, Richard Benedict, Ray Teal, Frank Jaquet

Oscar nomination: Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, Walter Newman (screenplay)

Venice Film Festival: Billy Wilder (international award and Golden Lion nomination)

The Big Carnival is noted for two things: It’s the only collaboration between Kirk Douglas and Billy Wilder, and it’s one of the angriest and most bitter films ever to come out of the Hollywood studio system.

Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a cynical, arrogant reporter exiled to a small-town newspaper in New Mexico after getting fired from several big-city papers. When he goes out to cover a story about a prospector (Richard Benedict) trapped under a rockslide, he sees his chance to make it back to the big time. He manipulates the sheriff into delaying the rescue efforts with the promise of luring tourists, thrill seekers, and onlookers coming to be a part of this stirring human interest story. Tatum whips up the media frenzy, positions himself as the sole reporter with the scoop, and escalates the event into a carnival. Even the hapless prospector’s wife (Jan Sterling), a self-serving poster child for High Maintenance, is drawn into Tatum’s spin as she proves his match in venal self-interest. And everything goes as you would expect—horribly, horribly badly.

The anger lingers far beyond the story’s end, and Wilder’s trademark verbal zingers barely sugar-coat the story’s bitter core, which indicts us all. Poignant and thoughtful. AT

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1950s




A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE (1951)

U.S. (Charles K. Feldman, Warner Bros.) 122m BW

Director: Elia Kazan

Producer: Charles K. Feldman

Screenplay: Tennessee Williams, Oscar Saul, from play by Tennessee Williams

Photography: Harry Stradling Sr.

Music: Alex North

Cast: Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden, Rudy Bond, Nick Dennis, Peg Hillias, Wright King, Richard Garrick, Ann Dere, Edna Thomas, Mickey Kuhn

Oscars: Vivien Leigh (actress), Karl Malden (actor in support role), Kim Hunter (actress in support role), Richard Day, George James Hopkins (art direction)

Oscar nominations: Charles K. Feldman (best picture), Elia Kazan (director), Tennessee Williams (screenplay), Marlon Brando (actor), Harry Stradling Sr. (photography), Lucinda Ballard (costume), Alex North (music), Nathan Levinson (sound)

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“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” Although Tennessee Williams’s play was meant to be all about the desperate, poetic heroism of Blanche DuBois, Marlon Brando’s uncouth, sweaty animal magnetism opposite Vivien Leigh’s frail, faded belle commanded the screen, just as it had electrified Broadway theatergoers opposite Jessica Tandy’s Blanche four years earlier (a production also directed by Elia Kazan). Brando’s brooding naturalism, his earthy sexuality, and his howls of “Stell-ahhhh!” remain a nearly impossible act to follow for the actors who have subsequently assayed the brutish Stanley Kowalski.

Ironically, Kazan’s screen version—also scripted by Williams but subjected to censorship of some frank content—won three of the four acting Oscars for Leigh, who had also played Blanche in London’s West End production, directed by her husband Sir Laurence Olivier. Oscars were also won by supporting actors Kim Hunter and Karl Malden, but Brando was beaten to the post by Humphrey Bogart (for The African Queen). Nevertheless, Brando’s impact in Streetcar placed him at the forefront of modern screen actors, the most famous and influential of the Actors Studio’s “Method” exponents.

Having lost the long-in-decline family estate to back taxes and her reputation while seeking oblivion or solace, Blanche arrives in New Orleans to stay with her pregnant sister Stella and churlish brother-in-law Stanley in their cramped, sweltering apartment. Stanley, convinced that Blanche is holding out on a mythical inheritance, is driven wild by the neurotic woman, pathetically clinging to her refinement and delusions. Under Stanley’s resentful bullying, Blanche’s last hopes are brutally destroyed, and she retreats into a psychotic state.

Although it was Kazan’s seventh feature film, Streetcar is theatrical rather than cinematic. Its power emanates from the performances, particularly the absorbing duel between the poignant, ethereal, classic (one might say determined), stagey Leigh and the explosive, instinctive Brando, who are as different in their acting approaches as Blanche and Stanley are in personality. Kazan, who was a cofounder of the Actors Studio in 1947 and still a force in American theater at the time, was showing little interest in the visual possibilities of the medium, but his way with actors is amply apparent here. AE

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1950s




STRANGERS ON A TRAIN (1951)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 101m BW

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Producer: Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay: Raymond Chandler, Whitfield Cook, Czenzi Ormonde, from novel by Patricia Highsmith

Photography: Robert Burks

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Cast: Farley Granger, Ruth Roman, Robert Walker, Leo G. Carroll, Patricia Hitchcock, Kasey Rogers, Marion Lorne, Jonathan Hale, Howard St. John, John Brown, Norma Varden, Robert Gist

Oscar nomination: Robert Burks (photography)

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Is there any wonder why Alfred Hitchcock was drawn to author Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train? Her first novel, Strangers includes elements found in virtually all of Hitchcock’s films: a fascination with murder, mix-ups, and barely suppressed homosexual urges. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for the director to purchase the rights and get to work, and with a great screenplay from Raymond Chandler—with a touch-up by Ben Hecht, among others—the film turned out to be one of Hitchcock’s most effective.

Strangers on a Train begins innocently enough. Guy Haines (Farley Granger), a successful tennis player, literally bumps into fellow train passenger Bruno Anthony (Robert Walker), an eccentric and excitable stranger. Both have someone in their lives they’d rather be without. Guy wants his wife out of the picture and Bruno his domineering father, so Bruno devises the “perfect” murder to solve both men’s problems: They’ll simply swap victims. Guy brushes off the crazy idea, but soon Bruno is blackmailing him into fulfilling his part of the bargain.

Almost a black comedy, Strangers on a Train also works as a bizarre courtship ritual, where Granger plays the straight man to Walker’s flamboyant lunatic. As usual, Hitchcock takes particular glee in exploiting the plight of his protagonist. The dialogue sparkles as Walker tightens the screws around Granger, leading to what could be the most suspenseful tennis game in movie history. But this being Hitchcock, the thrilling conclusion takes place on a moving carousel, with Granger and Walker wrestling as the out-of-control ride spins faster and faster.

It’s a jarring finale to what is largely an internalized film about madness, blackmail, and guilt, yet Hitchcock pulls it off brilliantly. As the campy charm of Walker leads to more overtly murderous impulses, his stature as a villain grows, and he can only be dispatched in a manner that does justice to his larger-than-life personality. Indeed, Walker (in his last role) dominates the film. He’s the ego unleashed, the flashy flip side to the more repressed insanity Hitchcock would explore nine years later in Psycho. JKl

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1950s




THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (1951)

G.B. (Ealing Studios, Rank) 78m BW

Director: Charles Crichton

Producer: Michael Balcon, Michael Truman

Screenplay: T.E.B. Clarke

Photography: Douglas Slocombe

Music: Georges Auric

Cast: Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, Sid James, Alfie Bass, Marjorie Fielding, Edie Martin, John Salew, Ronald Adam, Arthur Hambling, Gibb McLaughlin, John Gregson, Clive Morton, Sydney Tafler, Marie Burke, Audrey Hepburn

Oscar: T.E.B. Clarke (screenplay)

Oscar nomination: Alec Guinness (actor)

Along with the 1955 film The Ladykillers, also a stickup caper, The Lavender Hill Mob is the laugh-out-loud funniest of the celebrated Ealing comedies produced by Sir Michael Balcon and internationally beloved for their irreverent, ironic, inimitably British humor. Peerless Alec Guinness plays the bespectacled, insignificant bank clerk who has it in mind to finance a high-living retirement as recompense for a career being taken for granted. He plans a daring gold bullion robbery with souvenir maker Stanley Holloway and inept career burglars Sid James and Alfie Bass in one-time policeman T.E.B. “Tibby” Clarke’s Oscar-winning screenplay.

The film is a master class in neat plotting and incident, served superbly by Charles Crichton’s exhilarating direction, particularly of the loot snafu at the Eiffel Tower (Guinness and Holloway hurtling down the spiral stairs in vain pursuit of the English schoolgirls who have innocently purchased erroneously switched, solid gold models of the Parisian landmark) and the riotous chase climax (in which, at one point, a singing Welsh policeman grabs a ride on the running board of the aghast fleeing duo’s car). Check out young Audrey Hepburn in the opening scene in Rio, where a benevolent, dapper Guinness tells his story to an interested party. AE

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1950s




PANDORA AND THE FLYING DUTCHMAN (1951)

G.B. (Dorkay, Romulus) 122 m Technicolor

Language: English / Spanish

Director: Albert Lewin

Producer: Joseph Kaufman, Albert Lewin

Screenplay: Albert Lewin

Photography: Jack Cardiff

Music: Alan Rawsthorne

Cast: James Mason, Ava Gardner, Nigel Patrick, Sheila Sim, Harold Warrender, Mario Cabré, Marius Goring, John Laurie, Pamela Mason, Patricia Raine, Margarita D’Alvarez, La Pillina, Abraham Sofaer, Francisco Igual, Guillermo Beltrán

Once dismissed as pretentious and preposterous, the reputation of this magical romantic fantasy has steadily grown over the years. Set in the early 1930s in a town called Esperanza (“Hope”) on “the Mediterranean coast of Spain,” where idle rich exiles mingle with working fisherfolk, Pandora and the Flying Dutchman begins with the discovery of two drowned corpses, hands locked together. In flashback, Pandora Reynolds (Ava Gardner), an American singer who specializes in driving men to death and distraction, meets her predestined match in Hendrick Van Der Zee (James Mason), captain and sole crew of a luxury yacht; he turns out to be the Flying Dutchman, cursed to sail the seas until he finds a woman willing to die for him.

Producer, director, and writer Albert Lewin, one of Hollywood’s few open intellectuals, was a man of ostentatious literary leanings (his films are littered with quoted poetry, to the point that Pandora makes an offhand remark about how everything people say to her sounds like a quotation) and fantastical romanticism (all his pictures are about impossible loves that find perfect moments between curses). Shot in dark-hued but ravishing Technicolor by Jack Cardiff, the film is a tribute to the beauty of Ava Gardner, with footnotes about the brooding intensity of James Mason. KN

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1950s




THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951)

G.B. (Horizon, Romulus) 105 m Technicolor

Language: English / German / Swahili

Director: John Huston

Screenplay: James Agee, John Huston, from novel by C.S. Forester

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn, Robert Morley, Peter Bull, Theodore Bikel, Walter Gotell, Peter Swanwick, Richard Marner

Oscar: Humphrey Bogart (actor)

Oscar nominations: John Huston (director), James Agee, John Huston (screenplay), Katharine Hepburn (actress)

Steven jay schneider

John Huston’s 1951 classic is one of Hollywood’s most impressive, entertaining, and compelling adventure stories. Based on C.S. Forester’s 1935 novel of the same name, The African Queen narrates the unlikely love affair between tramp steamer captain Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart) and puritanical missionary spinster Rose Sayer (Katharine Hepburn). Rose can barely tolerate Charlie, but fate throws them together. Caught amid the violence of the impending World War I, Rose must escape downriver with Charlie in his battered tugboat. However, a German warship blocks their exit route, and Rose launches a plan to rig Charlie’s cargo with explosive materials so as to thwart the Germans and make their escape.

The adventure tale is secondary to the rocky relationship between Charlie and Rose, and despite the overt political content of the war narrative, The African Queen’s more interesting allegory plays out in their love story. Rose’s prim, repressed British spinster is seduced by Charlie’s unshaven, gin-swigging American masculinity. Although set in 1914, the film’s post-World War II subtext of the United States’s emergence as a primary international player as the influence of traditional colonial powers waned is unmistakable.

Hepburn and Bogart are tremendously enjoyable as the leads. Both veteran, grizzled stars using their trademark gestures and tics to full effect, they suffuse the film with a light, comic air that does not diminish the action. The chemistry between them is perfect, and the movement from polar opposites to comrades and lovers plays out effortlessly and convincingly, although they are at their most entertaining when they are at each other’s throats. The color photography and truly astounding location shots of the jungle all add to The African Queen’s tremendous appeal. Bogart won his only Oscar for the film and Huston (for direction and writing), Hepburn, and screenwriter James Agee were also nominated. Yet this description and the many subsequent accolades that the film has received cannot capture all of its magic. Even after repeat viewings, it never fails to impart a good feeling, and of the many wonderful films summarized in this book, it truly is a must-see. RH

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1950s




JOURNAL D’UN CURÉ DE CAMPAGNE (1951)

DIARY OF A COUNTRY PRIEST

France (UGC) 110m BW

Language: French

Director: Robert Bresson

Screenplay: Robert Bresson, from novel by Georges Bernanos

Producer: Léon Carré, Robert Sussfeld

Photography: Léonce-Henri Burel

Music: Jean-Jacques Grünenwald

Cast: Claude Laydu, Léon Arvel, Antoine Balpêtré, Jean Danet, Jeanne Étiévant, André Guibert, Bernard Hubrenne, Nicole Ladmiral, Martine Lemaire, Nicole Maurey, Louise (Mme. Louise) Martial Morange, Jean Riveyre, Gaston Séverin, Gilberte Terbois, Marie-Monique Arkell

Venice Film Festival: Robert Bresson (international award, Italian film critics award, OCIC award, Golden Lion nomination)

One of the cinema’s greatest artists was searching for inspiration and he found it in the Diary of a Country Priest. With imagination, courage, and rigor, Robert Bresson discovered that filmmaking did not require big budgets, stars, or special effects. The cinema could tell any story, provoke any emotion, open itself to all the material and immaterial, private and collective themes through the most elementary uses of its true nature.

Georges Bernanos’s novel tells the tale of a young priest living in the countryside dealing with the difficulties of everyday life and the interrogation of his actions and his faith. Bernanos refuses to leave either believers or atheists in peace, opening up chasms in the concrete world. Bresson’s adaptation of the Diary of a Country Priest is a humble achievement, one that shows what the Christian message is based on—a message that the cinema is designed to translate into images and sounds: the word made into flesh.

Cinema is the concrete and communal accomplishment of the Mystery of Incarnation. Bresson’s film demonstrates that everything can become possible: joking with death, writing on the screen, playing with desire, watching the insights of the psyche, generating fascination for life in rural France in the mid-twentieth century, and confronting religious questions. J-MF

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1950s




AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)

U.S. (MGM) 113m Technicolor

Language: English / French

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Producer: Roger Edens, Arthur Freed

Screenplay: Alan Jay Lerner

Photography: John Alton, Alfred Gilks

Music: Saul Chaplin

Cast: Gene Kelly, Jerry Mulligan, Leslie Caron, Lise Bouvier, Oscar Levant, Adam Cook, Georges Guétary, Henri Baurel, Nina Foch, Milo Roberts

Oscars: Arthur Freed (best picture), Alan Jay Lerner (screenplay), Cedric Gibbons, E. Preston Ames, Edwin B. Willis, F. Keogh Gleason (art direction), Alfred Gilks, John Alton (photography), Orry-Kelly, Walter Plunkett, Irene Sharaff (costume), Johnny Green, Saul Chaplin (music)

Oscar nominations: Vincente Minnelli (director), Adrienne Fazan (editing)

Vincente Minnelli’s joyous musical won six Academy Awards—including Best Picture (over supposed favorites A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place in the Sun)—as well as a special citation for choreographer-star Gene Kelly and the Thalberg Memorial Award for MGM producer Alan Freed. An American in Paris was an original for the screen, conceived by Freed as a vehicle for Kelly and constructed around a clutch of George Gershwin’s most popular songs (including “I Got Rhythm” and “’S Wonderful”).

Penniless artist Kelly brings his athletic exuberance to a sanitized Montmartre, tap dances with urchins, falls for gamine muse Leslie Caron, and vies for her with suave French singer Georges Guétary. Meanwhile jealous patron Nina Foch seethes, all dryly observed by the composer pal played by pianist and Gershwin exponent Oscar Levant. Sending up the penchant of Lost Generation Americans for immersing themselves in a little culture française, Minnelli fills the film with vitality, romance, and a riot of color. The sensational, innovative highlight is Kelly’s original eighteen-minute ballet to the title music, staged through sets in the style of French artists, notably Toulouse Lautrec, and the blissfully romantic Kelly–Caron “Our Love Is Here To Stay” dance number on the banks of the river Seine. AE

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1950s




A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951)

U.S. (Paramount) 122m BW

Director: George Stevens

Producer: Ivan Moffat, George Stevens

Screenplay: Harry Brown, Theodore Dreiser, Patrick Kearney, Michael Wilson, from the novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser and the play A Place in the Sun by Patrick Kearney

Photography: William C. Mellor

Music: Franz Waxman

Cast: Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor, Shelley Winters, Anne Revere, Keefe Brasselle, Fred Clark, Raymond Burr, Herbert Heyes, Shepperd Strudwick, Frieda Inescort, Kathryn Givney, Walter Sande, Ted de Corsia, John Ridgely, Lois Chartrand

Oscars: George Stevens (director), Michael Wilson, Harry Brown (screenplay), William C. Mellor (cinematography BW), Edith Head (costume), William Hornbeck (editing), Franz Waxman (music)

Oscar nominations: George Stevens (best picture), Montgomery Clift (actor), Shelley Winters (actress)

Steven jay schneider

In adapting Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy for the screen, director George Stevens was faced with the difficulty of making the novelist’s grimly naturalist tale of class warfare interesting to a 1950s audience more eager for entertainment than political instruction. His solution was brilliantly effective: to emphasize the erotic longings of George Eastman (Montgomery Clift) for the beautiful Angela Vickers (Elizabeth Taylor). George is stuck in a dead-end job at a Chicago hotel when he meets his wealthy uncle for the first time. Seeing his new acquaintance with the influential industrialist as a chance to escape the impoverished and intensely religious environment he grew up in, he decides to quit his job and hitchhike across the country to work at the man’s factory in upstate New York. But George, dominated by feelings of deprivation and exclusion, shows neither the drive nor the initiative to work his way up from the bottom. In fact, he is so weak that he has barely begun work at the factory when he violates one of its cardinal rules. Dating a fellow employee, he ends up impregnating the poor, desperate woman, in whom he has already lost interest.

Played as a kind of pathetic naïf by Clift, George’s chief asset becomes his beauty and gentleness. A Place in the Sun thus became one of classic Hollywood’s most touching and tragic romances, a result of Stevens’s careful coaching of the principals (who were told to emphasize body language rather than dialogue) and his artful manipulation of two contrasting styles. George’s fairy-tale encounter with the innocent Angela is dominated by intimate camerawork, especially carefully juxtaposed close-ups composed in soft focus. Scenes in the factory, with his first girlfriend Alice (Shelley Winters), and later in the courtroom, however, are photographed in a film noir style, emphasizing chiaroscuro lighting and unbalanced compositions that nicely express the threat circumstances pose to George’s desire for his “place in the sun.”

Pregnant, Alice threatens to expose George to his family if he doesn’t marry her; he is saved from this fate only because the town hall is closed for a holiday when the couple arrives. George suggests a lake outing in a small boat; his intention is that there should be an “accident” and that Alice will drown. He cannot go through with the murder, but then Alice, frightened, tips over the boat. She drowns because he doesn’t try to save her, and George pays with his life for his indifference. Stevens, however, makes him more memorable as a tragic lover than as a socio-political object lesson. BP

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1950s




THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951)

U.S. (Fox) 92m BW

Director: Robert Wise

Producer: Julian Blaustein

Screenplay: Harry Bates, Edmund H. North, from the story “Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates

Photography: Leo Tover

Music: Bernard Herrmann

Cast: Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe, Billy Gray, Frances Bavier, Lock Martin

Steven jay schneider

Robert Wise’s 1951 science-fiction drama based on Farewell to the Master, a short story by Harry Bates, hit a nerve with nuclear-war weary and politician-wary audiences of the time. Beginning in an almost documentary style, it spreads a chilling antiwar message via spectacular special effects and memorable characterizations. More than a B-movie, it is the first popular adult science-fiction film to send out a real message about humanity.

An interstellar emissary called Klaatu (Michael Rennie) lands in Washington, D.C., to deliver the message that war on Earth must stop. His spacecraft surrounded by guns and tanks, Klaatu is accidentally injured and whisked away to a military hospital, leaving only Gort (Lock Martin), a seven-foot-tall robot, to guard the craft. Faceless, speechless, and possessing a deadly laserlike ray, Gort is invincible. The only way to get him to stop defending the spacecraft is by uttering, “Gort, Klaatu barada niktoh,” a sentence learned by heart by virtually every child who has seen the film.

Klaatu escapes from the hospital and meets Helen (Patricia Neal), a beautiful woman of exceptional intelligence, and her son Bobby (Billy Gray), and it is Helen who must disarm the deadly Gort. To prove his power and lend weight to his message of peace, Klaatu devises a plan to stop all mechanical movement in the world (with the exception of airplanes and hospitals).

The role of Klaatu was originally intended for Claude Rains but a scheduling conflict opened the part for Rennie, whose angular face and calm demeanor lend a remote, gentle superiority to the character. Neal, a symbol of feminine bravery, sums up the best of what humanity has to offer. Gort was played by Martin, a 7'7” usher at Los Angeles’ Graumann’s Chinese Theater. Burdened by the heavy suit, Martin needed extra help to hold Neal in his arms, and in some scenes assisting wires are easily seen. To make the spacecraft appear seamless, the door crevice was puttied in and painted with silver. The putty tore open, allowing the door to suddenly appear without visual warning. Never bettered, The Day the Earth Stood Still is a classic on many fronts, not the least for its antiwar message and clever visual effects as well as Bernard Herrmann’s haunting use of the theremin, an early electronic instrument. KK

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1950s




THE QUIET MAN (1952)

U.S. (Argosy, Republic) 129m Technicolor

Language: English / Gaelic

Director: John Ford

Producer: Merian C. Cooper, G.B. Forbes, John Ford, L.T. Rosso

Screenplay: Frank S. Nugent, Maurice Walsh, from the story “Green Rushes” by Maurice Walsh

Photography: Winton C. Hoch

Music: Victor Young

Cast: John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Ward Bond, Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, Francis Ford, Eileen Crowe, May Craig, Arthur Shields, Charles B. Fitzsimons, James Lilburn, Sean McClory, Jack MacGowran, Joseph O’Dea

Oscars: John Ford (director), Winton C. Hoch, Archie Stout (photography)

Oscar nominations: John Ford, Merian C. Cooper (best picture), Frank S. Nugent (screenplay), Victor McLaglen (actor in support role), Frank Hotaling, John McCarthy Jr., Charles S. Thompson (art direction), Daniel J. Bloomberg (sound)

Venice Film Festival: John Ford (international award, OCIC award, Golden Lion nomination)

Director John Ford is most famous for his celebrations of American history and culture, but he also made a number of films that explored his Celtic, and especially Irish, roots, of which The Quiet Man is perhaps the most successful. An interesting mixture of drama and comedy, the film traces the homecoming of Irish-American Sean Thornton (John Wayne) to the “old sod,” where he begins a passionate and stormy relationship with Mary Kate Danaher (Maureen O’Hara). Filmed in County Galway (from which Ford’s family had emigrated to the United States), The Quiet Man features plenty of action in the Ford style, with the fitting, epic climax being ex-boxer Sean’s fistfight with Mary’s brother Will Danaher (Victor McLaglen) over his refusal to grant the American Mary’s hand.

The battle ends with both men getting too drunk (during pauses in the action) to continue; they end as friends and, ultimately, family after Will agrees to the marriage. Yet the film is not really about masculine values. Mary is much more than the simple object of their contention. Though she wants Sean, Mary refuses to go against her brother to marry him. Marrying Sean under these circumstances would be an insult to her. At first Sean—who had killed a man in the ring—will not fight, and Mary thinks he does not love her enough to risk the struggle with her brother. A plot is hatched by others in the village to trick Danaher into granting his permission, and the couple is married. But the brother soon discovers the deceit and withholds her dowry. Mary refuses to sleep with Sean before the dowry, which represents her independent worth, is paid. The concluding boxing match settles both questions, however, and the couple is thereby reconciled.

Under Ford’s astute direction, The Quiet Man plays off the conventional quaintness of the village against the beautiful natural scenery, resulting in a film that is serious enough to be affecting, but enough of a fantasy to be uproariously funny. BP

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1950s




JEUX INTERDITS (1952)

FORBIDDEN GAMES

France (Silver) 102m BW

Language: French

Director: René Clément

Producer: Robert Dorfmann

Screenplay: François Boyer, Jean Aurenche, Pierre Bost, René Clément, from the novel Les Jeux Inconnus by François Boyer

Photography: Robert Juillard

Music: Narciso Yepes

Cast: Georges Poujouly, Brigitte Fossey, Amédée, Laurence Badie, Madeleine Barbulée, Suzanne Courtal, Lucien Hubert, Jacques Marin, Pierre Merovée, Violette Monnier, Denise Péronne, Fernande Roy, Louis Saintève, André Wasle

Oscar: France (honorary award—best foreign language film)

Oscar nomination: François Boyer (screenplay)

Venice Film Festival: René Clément (Golden Lion)

Steven jay schneider

A good many films have heightened the absurdities and cruelties of human life by depicting them through the eyes of children; but few more effectively, or more poignantly, than René Clément’s finest film, Forbidden Games. The setting, as with much of Clément’s best work, is World War II: A five-year-old girl, Paulette (Brigitte Fossey), is orphaned when her parents, fleeing from Paris, are killed in an aerial attack. Grudgingly taken in by a peasant family, she forms a bond with the younger son, eleven-year-old Michel (Georges Poujouly), and the two create a secret world that reflects the death they see all around them. Collecting the corpses of animals and insects, they perform solemn rites over them and bury them in a disused barn, muttering half-understood phrases from the Catholic burial service. These, the “forbidden games” of the title, outrage the adults who discover them, and the children—distressed and bewildered—are torn apart.

Clément made his name with a dramatized documentary, The Battle of the Rails (1946), about the operations of the Resistance on the French rail network, and the opening of Forbidden Games carries a powerfully realistic charge as German fighter planes bomb and machine-gun a straggling column of refugees. The sequence of the attack is all the more horrifying for relying entirely on natural sound effects, with no added music, and for taking place amid the soft summer warmth of the French countryside. But after this the film grows more stylized. On the one hand is the adult world of the peasants, seen through the puzzled, fascinated eyes of the children—the petty feuds and bickering are caricatured, with lip service paid to religion while lives are ruled by greed and malice. By contrast, the children are observed with tenderness and sympathy as they construct their hidden fantasy world, and their final enforced separation is heartrending.

From his lead child actors, Clément draws remarkably expressive and convincing performances, refreshingly free from cuteness; there’s an instinctive grace in the boy’s gentleness toward his young friend. Narciso Yepes contributes a lyrical solo guitar score, expressive in its simplicity. PK

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1950s




ANGEL FACE (1952)

U.S. (RKO) 91m BW

Director: Otto Preminger

Producer: Otto Preminger, Howard Hughes

Screenplay: Chester Erskine, Oscar Millard, Frank S. Nugent

Photography: Harry Stradling Sr.

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Jean Simmons, Mona Freeman, Herbert Marshall, Leon Ames, Barbara O’Neil, Kenneth Tobey, Raymond Greenleaf, Griff Barnett, Robert Gist, Morgan Farley, Jim Backus

Steven jay schneider

The American film noir movement is dominated by doomed romances and powerfully manipulative femmes fatales, who lure gullible men to their destruction. Otto Preminger’s Angel Face appears late in the series and obviously owes much to earlier films such as Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947). This features Robert Mitchum in a similar role as a private investigator who discovers, but cannot escape from, the machinations of the amoral woman he loves.

Angel Face, however, is more cynical and sardonic than its predecessors. It traces the obsession of a working-class man, Frank Jessup (Mitchum), for a beautiful rich woman who involves him in a plot to murder her stepmother. Earlier, Diane Tremayne (Jean Simmons, cast effectively against type) had deliberately broken up Frank’s engagement to Mary (Mona Freeman), the “good” woman who represents a normal life that is no longer enough for Frank once he meets Diane and develops a taste for rich living. The murder plot succeeds, but only at the additional and unexpected cost of the life of Diane’s father. Diane, however, never feels a twinge of guilt, and nothing derails her plans. The couple are indicted for what is soon suspected to be a crime, but, in the tradition of The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946), they are acquitted because of the shyster lawyer she hires to defend them. Although seemingly destined for a life together, Frank finally has an attack of conscience. He attempts to break with Diane after the trial and resume his previous life. In a gesture that dooms him (again recalling Mitchum’s role in Out of the Past), Frank allows Diane to drive him to the bus station. But she would rather die than give him up. Diane backs the car over a cliff, killing them both, in a gesture that recalls the “accident” she plotted earlier.

Angel Face features impressive performances from Mitchum and Simmons, which Preminger’s direction subtly reinforces through an artful manipulation of mise-en-scène stage setting—classic film noir. BP

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1950s




SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN (1952)

U.S. (MGM) 103m Technicolor

Director: Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly

Producer: Arthur Freed

Screenplay: Betty Comden, Adolph Green

Photography: Harold Rosson

Music: Nacio Herb Brown, Lennie Hayton

Cast: Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen, Millard Mitchell, Cyd Charisse, Douglas Fowley, Rita Moreno

Oscar nominations: Jean Hagen (actress in support role), Lennie Hayton (music)

Steven jay schneider

Some films are held in high esteem for their impressive artistic breakthroughs or stunning acting debuts. Others are revered simply for being the best of a kind. Singin’ in the Rain falls into this latter category. It isn’t a pioneer in any real sense of the word, nor does it greatly advance the language of film, but few other pictures have so effortlessly and wonderfully encapsulated everything good about the movies: the joyous highs, the pitiful lows, and the perfect, perpetual seesaw between those two poles.

It is wholly appropriate that the greatest of all Hollywood musicals should be in essence about sound itself. Or at least the arrival of sound. The year is 1927, and Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) is a celebrated silent film star. In the middle of shooting another swashbuckler with his on-screen partner Lina Lamont (Jean Hagan), the studio learns of the imminent debut of The Jazz Singer and shuts the production down. The only way for the film to compete is to transform it into a musical, but there are two problems: Don can barely stand his leading lady Lina, and her thick New York accent will never work in the new era of sound films. The solution? Dub Lamont’s horrible singing voice with ingénue Kathy (Debbie Reynolds) and hope the public never finds out. But that stop-gap measure leads to yet another problem: Don has fallen in love with Kathy, which throws off his working relationship with Lina.

Codirected by Kelly and Stanley Donen, Singin’ in the Rain features several great song-and-dance numbers, particularly Donald O’Connor’s “Make ’Em Laugh” routine and Kelly’s famous solo turn during the title song. Kelly, wearing a dark suit and a fedora, swings from a light pole and stomps ecstatically in puddles, so enamored is he of the new love in his life. Oddly enough, several of the songs from Singin’ in the Rain were actually recycled from MGM’s music vaults, but Kelly and crew breathe such new life into them that they’re now inextricably linked to Singin’. The screenplay, by Adolph Green and Betty Comden, is fleet and funny, parodying the rocky transition from silent films to talkies with the rapid wit only a generation of writing for the latter could foster.

In an irony worthy of the film itself, Singin’ in the Rain was initially met with relative indifference and went mostly unnoticed at the Academy Awards. But as time went on its joyful sequences and charismatic stars became too strong to resist. Thank the repertoire circuit in part for crowning Singin’ in the Rain as king of all musicals, thank numerous film critics and groups for placing it on the top ten list, but most of all thank Donen and Kelly for making it. The world of movies and beyond is a better place with Singin’ in the Rain in it. JKl

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1950s




IKIRU (1952)

TO LIVE

Japan (Toho) 143m BW

Language: Japanese

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Producer: Sojiro Motoki

Screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni

Photography: Asakazu Nakai

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

Cast: Takashi Shimura, Shinichi Himori, Haruo Tanaka, Minoru Chiaki, Miki Odagiri, Bokuzen Hidari, Minosuke Yamada, Kamatari Fujiwara, Makoto Kobori, Nobuo Kaneko, Nobuo Nakamura, Atsushi Watanabe, Isao Kimura, Masao Shimizu, Yunosuke Ito

Berlin International Film Festival: Akira Kurosawa (special prize of the senate of Berlin)

Steven jay schneider

Although best known for his samurai epics (The Seven Samurai [1954], Yojimbo [1961]), Akira Kurosawa was not, in the end, principally concerned with blood and guts—though arguably no other director has so thoroughly explored the potential of violent imagery on screen. Kurosawa was cinema’s greatest humanist, and nowhere is this more evident than in Ikiru.

The film centers on Kenji Watanabe (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura), a sarariman (“salary man,” or mid-level bureaucrat) whose daily life is dull and unfulfilling. His greatest achievement—one he takes quite seriously—is that he hasn’t missed a day of work at the Citizen’s Section of the Municipal Office in thirty years. It is not that he regrets the mundanity of his life; it’s just that he knows no other option.

This all changes when he learns that he has cancer, and has but a short time still to live. In the last months of his life, Watanabe reconsiders his achievements (none) and his priorities (none), and decides that it is not too late for him to change the world for the better. He devotes all his energies to the construction of a public park—a small gesture that nevertheless takes on great significance for Watanabe, as well as for Kurosawa.

Shimura gives the performance of his life in Ikiru. After Watanabe learns of his illness, the actor’s face tells us all we need to know: from inexpressibility to humility, it’s all there in Shimura’s features. Moving through the film with the look of a man who has been truly harrowed, it is impossible not to feel Watanabe’s pain.

Though full of sadness, Ikiru is ultimately a movie of no small spiritual uplift. And this was Kurosawa’s point—that to achieve anything like satisfaction or happiness, one must suffer. But suffering, too, is a part of life, and it can be used for good. Ikiru is immensely life-affirming, even if it is about death and sorrow. Kurosawa’s gift was to show how these moods are not contradictory, but united as part of the cycle of life. His sincere belief that small things make a difference is both refreshing and touching, especially in today’s irony-soaked global village. EdeS

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1950s




EUROPA ‘51 (1952)

Italy (Ponti-De Laurentiis) 113m BW

Language: Italian

Director: Roberto Rossellini

Producer: Dino De Laurentiis, Roberto Rossellini

Screenplay: Sandro De Feo, Mario Pannunzio, Ivo Perilli, Brunello Rondi, Roberto Rossellini

Photography: Aldo Tonti

Music: Renzo Rossellini

Cast: Ingrid Bergman, Alexander Knox, Ettore Giannini, Giulietta Masina, Teresa Pellati, Sandro Franchina, William Tubbs, Alfred Brown

Venice Film Festival: Roberto Rossellini (international award, Golden Lion nomination)

Steven jay schneider

Roberto Rossellini’s Europa ’51 contains the most unpredictable mixture of ingredients one can think of, a stew you might not be so sure you want to taste—one that includes a Scandinavian actress-turned-Hollywood movie star; the father of Italian Neorealism; a statement on the social conditions of cities in postwar Europe; a metaphysical meditation about the nature of good and evil and about the inalienable right to self-determination; the opposition of bourgeoisie and popular classes on every level; the death of a child; the betrayal and redemption of a mother . . . mamma mia! And then, you sit in the dark, the screen lights up, the movie begins. It’s simple, it’s obvious. Elegant, deeply moving, incredibly alive.

One year earlier, in Stromboli, Rossellini had turned a willing Ingrid Bergman into an extraordinary puppet simultaneously submitted to the hand of God and the hand of her director (and lover). No such thing this time, only the daring invention—by the same filmmaker and star—of a previously unknown fusion of the melodrama as a popular genre and the auteur film with its ethical and social concerns. Each situation in Europa ’51 is composed of conventional stuff, and every scene comes as unexpected, filled with a disturbing sense of reality, of secret connections with real life, though it seems to deal only with the usual references, both on the Romanesque side and on the thematic side. And it all takes places without any overly dramatic effect, without any kind of boasting, but, on the contrary, with an incredible modesty (by a director and an actress who were anything but humble) in the way the story is told, the way it is shot, and the way it is acted.

Europa ’51 slips beyond all the frames it would appear to belong to, reaching a level of essential humanism rarely achieved in the cinema—and never by using heavy means. As Bergman’s character, Irene Girard, walks through all the obstacles on her way to being called a saint by the people, the film itself walks its way through, escaping from all the sins it seems to have had to endure. A “saintly” film? Why not? J-MF

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1950s




THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (1952)

U.S. (Loew’s, MGM) 118m BW

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Producer: John Houseman

Screenplay: George Bradshaw, Charles Schnee

Photography: Robert Surtees

Music: David Raksin

Cast: Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan, Gloria Grahame, Gilbert Roland, Leo G. Carroll, Vanessa Brown, Paul Stewart, Sammy White, Elaine Stewart, Ivan Triesault

Oscars: Charles Schnee (screenplay), Gloria Grahame (actress in support role), Cedric Gibbons, Edward C. Carfagno, Edwin B. Willis, F. Keogh Gleason (art direction), Robert Surtees (photography), Helen Rose (costume)

Oscar nomination: Kirk Douglas (actor)

Steven jay schneider

Still the best Hollywood-on-Hollywood movie, The Bad and the Beautiful is loosely based on the career of David O. Selznick, detouring to take in a few insider anecdotes about Val Lewton, Orson Welles, Raymond Chandler, Diana Barrymore, Alfred Hitchcock, and Irving Thalberg. Also note the British director’s (played by Hitchcock’s regular Leo G. Carroll) silent but influential wife.

Three people with good cause to hate producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) are gathered to take a phone call from Paris in which the washed-up Shields will pitch a new project. In flashbacks, they cover his up-from-Poverty Row career, remembering why they loathe him so much. Director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) is an early partner who is inspired by Shields to make something of a cheap monster picture called The Doom of the Cat Man (think Cat People [1942]), but is then shut out of his dream project, a hilariously “significant” Mexican project called The Faraway Mountain. Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), drunken trampy daughter of a John Barrymore–style hellraising star, is hauled out of the gutter and turned into a second-generation movie goddess through personal attention and then dumped for an available slut (the wonderfully wry Elaine Stewart) on the night of the premiere. Least likely to forgive is professorial screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), whose flighty, flirty distraction of a wife (Academy Award winner Gloria Grahame) Shields passes on to “Latin lover” Victor “Gaucho” Ribera (Gilbert Roland), who gets her killed in a plane crash.

No one can match Douglas as an ambitious megalomaniac, and this teeth-clenched, dimple-thrusting portrait is among his best work. The gossipy screenplay (another Oscar winner, for Charles Schnee) is served wonderfully by director Vincente Minnelli’s lush melodramatics and David Raksin’s seductive score. In more than fifty years, the film has taken on more tragic-comic resonance as Selznick’s reputation has taken a nosedive—Shields’s conviction that he is making great art (shared by his accountant!) worth sacrificing other people’s lives for is all the more unsettling in that Minnelli allows glimpses of exactly the sort of bloated, huge self-important spectacle that now plays less well than more modest efforts. In the Shields filmography, you know you’d rather see The Doom of the Cat Man than The Faraway Mountain. KN

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1950s




THE BIG SKY (1952)

U.S. (Winchester) 140m BW

Director: Howard Hawks

Producer: Howard Hawks, Edward Lasker

Screenplay: A.B. Guthrie Jr., Dudley Nichols, from novel by A.B. Guthrie Jr.

Photography: Russell Harlan

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Cast: Kirk Douglas, Dewey Martin, Elizabeth Threatt, Arthur Hunnicutt, Buddy Baer, Steven Geray, Henri Letondal, Hank Worden, Jim Davis

Oscar nominations: Arthur Hunnicutt (actor in support role), Russell Harlan (photography)

In Howard Hawks’s The Big Sky, Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin are fur traders in the 1830s, journeying up the Missouri river into Blackfoot country on a keelboat. The film is based on an excellent novel by A.B. Guthrie Jr., who also wrote the script for Shane (1953) and whose novels These Thousand Hills and The Way West were also made into Western movies. On the way, Douglas and Martin meet hazards both natural and human, and forge their crew into a Hawksian professional elite. This camaraderie is threatened when they capture an Indian girl, Teal Eye (Elizabeth Threatt), as a hostage to guarantee their safety. Both men fall for her, but eventually it’s resolved.

Shot in black-and-white, with some impressive scenery, Hawks’s film is ultimately less interested in the epic possibilities of the story than in the rich gallery of characters, including Hank Worden as a crazed old Indian, Arthur Hunnicutt as a feisty old-timer, and Steven Geray as Frenchy, the captain of the boat. There are also characteristic touches of Hawksian black humor, notably when Douglas has to have his finger amputated, a scene that was originally intended to be performed by John Wayne in Red River (1948). EB

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1950s




HIGH NOON (1952)

U.S. (Stanley Kramer) 85m BW

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Producer: Carl Foreman, Stanley Kramer

Screenplay: John W. Cunningham, Carl Foreman, from the story “The Tin Star” by John W. Cunningham

Photography: Floyd Crosby

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Cast: Gary Cooper, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Grace Kelly, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney Jr., Harry Morgan, Ian MacDonald, Eve McVeagh, Morgan Farley, Harry Shannon, Lee Van Cleef, Robert J. Wilke, Sheb Wooley

Oscars: Gary Cooper (actor), Elmo Williams, Harry W. Gerstad (editing), Dimitri Tiomkin (music), Dimitri Tiomkin, Ned Washington (song)

Oscar nominations: Stanley Kramer (best picture), Fred Zinnemann (director), Carl Foreman (screenplay)

One Sunday morning in the tamed western town of Hadleyville, New Mexico, as Marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is about to marry a peace-loving Quaker (Grace Kelly), news arrives that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald)—the psycho Kane previously put away—has been pardoned and is due in on the 12 P.M. train. As Miller’s most vicious accomplices (including a harmonica-sucking Lee Van Cleef) loiter at the station, the Marshal appeals for help. But the townspeople (colleagues, friends, dignitaries) refuse to risk their lives and stand by him against the outlaw who wants not only revenge but to run Hadleyville again.

Various clocks reveal that it’s getting near noontime; everyone urges Kane to leave town, but the Cooper-style hero must face his responsibilities. High Noon plays out in real time, the deadline ticking closer and closer as the ballad theme song (“Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling”) insists on the situation, with those the Marshal assumes will help him falling like ninepins. In a finale that remains potent even in these days of one-man-against-an-army action movies, he is left almost alone against four villains. Fred Zinneman’s film is at once a great suspense Western and a stark allegory of the climate of fear and suspicion prevailing during the McCarthy era. KN

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1950s




UMBERTO D (1952)

Italy (Amato, De Sica, Rizzoli) 91m BW

Language: Italian

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Producer: Giuseppe Amato, Vittorio De Sica, Angelo Rizzoli

Screenplay: Cesare Zavattini

Photography: Aldo Graziati

Music: Alessandro Cicognini

Cast: Carlo Battisti, Maria-Pia Casilio, Lina Gennari, Ileana Simova, Elena Rea, Memmo Carotenuto

Oscar nomination: Cesare Zavattini (screenplay)

This heart-wrenching film of a retired bureaucrat (Carlo Battisti) and his dog, Flike, will stay with you forever. After having made the Neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief in 1948, director Vittorio De Sica and screenwriter Cesare Zavattini return to similar subject matter and method in Umberto D. Their technique is to structure the film around an emotionally charged and compelling personal story that reveals, in its telling, the general social conditions in which the story is set.

Umberto D is shot on the streets of Rome and the major parts are played by nonprofessional actors, adding to the film’s immediacy and authenticity. One major criticism of Neorealism is that the melodramatic treatment of the small story dilutes the larger social message and claim to realism made by the film in question. With its unapologetic tragic story of an old man’s despair and love for his pet, and its pointed observations of social injustice, Umberto D provides the perfect opportunity for the viewer to consider this question about one of the most influential movements in the history of cinema.

Battisti, a retired professor, plays the title character with an understated sense of both dignity and resignation concerning his situation. Living on an insufficient pension, Umberto can barely afford his rented room, where he is at the mercy of his callous landlady, who wants to get rid of him. He shares the food he gets at a local charity with his dog, who is his sole companion and source of solace. As things get worse and worse for Umberto, he is on several occasions forced to choose between his own life and that of Flike. In one of the film’s central sequences, Flike gets lost and Umberto fears that he will be destroyed at the city pound. As in The Bicycle Thief, the suspense built up around the ever-more-desperate search rivals a Hitchcock thriller. A pet who gives joy to a joyless existence (or a bicycle that will provide work in a time of great want) is shown to be capable of generating the same interest and excitement as a set of blueprints for a secret weapon or a cache of stolen jewels in a more fantastic scenario. Here, De Sica leaves us wondering whether Umberto’s love for his dog, who depends on him alone, is redemptory or futile. RH

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1950s




LE CARROSSE D’OR (1953)

THE GOLDEN COACH

Italy / France (Hoche, Panaria) 103m Technicolor

Director: Jean Renoir

Producer: Francesco Alliata, Renzo Avanzo

Screenplay: Renzo Avanzo, Jack Kirkland, Ginette Doynel, Giulio Macchi, Jean Renoir, from the play Le Carrosse du Saint-Sacrement by Prosper Mérimée

Photography: Claude Renoir

Original music: Antonio Vivaldi

Cast: Anna Magnani, Odoardo Spadaro, Nada Fiorelli, Dante, Duncan Lamont, George Higgins, Ralph Truman, Gisella Mathews, Raf De La Torre, Elena Altieri, Paul Campbell, Riccardo Rioli, William Tubbs, Jean Debucourt

The first in Jean Renoir’s loose “theater” trilogy (the other two, French Cancan in 1955 and Elena and Her Men the following year), this Italian–French co-production features an Anglo-Italian cast led by the indefatigable Anna Magnani. In the English-language version, she laments the impossibility of acting in a foreign language in her inimitably thick Italian accent. She plays Camilla, Columbine in a commedia dell’arte troupe that arrives in eighteenth-century Peru. Instead of streets paved with gold, they find no pavement at all—they even have to build the theater for which they’ve been engaged.

“What do they make of the new world?”

“It’ll be nice when they finish it.”

Despite Camilla’s first impressions, she is soon being courted by three eligible suitors, one of them the Spanish viceroy (Duncan Lamont), who presents her with the golden coach of the title. Alas, for an actor, sincerity in life is no guarantee of a happy ending. The movie’s surface frivolity and farcical plotting camouflage a mature, even melancholy film about the fraught relations between love, art, and life. François Truffaut called it “the noblest and most refined film ever made . . . It is all breeding and politeness, grace and freshness . . . a film about theater in the theater.” Antonio Vivaldi provides the soundtrack and Renoir’s brother Claude the exquisite color cinematography. TCh

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1950s




THE BIGAMIST (1953)

U.S. (Filmmakers) 80m BW

Director: Ida Lupino

Producer: Collier Young

Screenplay: Larry Marcus, Lou Schor, Collier Young

Photography: George E. Diskant

Music: Leith Stevens

Cast: Joan Fontaine, Edmund Gwenn, Ida Lupino, Edmond O’Brien, Kenneth Tobey, Jane Darwell, Peggy Maley

This haunting film is one of several out-of-nowhere masterpieces directed during a too-brief period by Ida Lupino, considered “the poor man’s Bette Davis,” when she was a hard-boiled Warner Brothers star in the 1940s. Edmond O’Brien stars as Harry Graham, a refrigerator salesman who, from shambling clumsily through life, ends up with two wives, Eve (Joan Fontaine) and Phyllis (Lupino), each unaware of the other’s existence. Lupino’s understated direction enfolds the characters with discreet, helpless pity.

Such drama as there is in The Bigamist is born from the sadness of three people: Harry’s loneliness, Eve’s sorrow over her father’s death and her inability to conceive a child, and Phyllis’s reluctance to have Harry acknowledge her because she doesn’t want to be a burden to him. The whole film is the crystallization of this collective sadness in terms of environment (San Francisco and Los Angeles as the settings of Harry’s dual life), deportment (Harry’s numbed, pained passivity; Phyllis’s hard-bitten isolation; Eve’s desperate and pathetic attempt to be both the perfect wife and the perfect business partner), and, above all, the looks shared or half-avoided between people. In the shattering final courtroom scene, the orchestration of these looks achieves a combination of ambiguity and intensity that recalls both Carl Dreyer and Nicholas Ray. CFu

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1950s




THE BAND WAGON (1953)

U.S. (MGM) 111m Technicolor

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Producer: Arthur Freed

Screenplay: Betty Comden, Adolph Green

Photography: Harry Jackson

Music: Arthur Schwartz (songs)

Cast: Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Oscar Levant, Nanette Fabray, Jack Buchanan, James Mitchell, Robert Gist

Oscar nominations: Betty Comden, Adolph Green (screenplay), Mary Ann Nyberg (costume), Adolph Deutsch (music)

Steven jay schneider

Like Singin’ in the Rain released the previous year, Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon is a musical that affectionately reflects upon the history of its genre—in order to pioneer a new, “integrated” style based on character and plot while simultaneously enjoying the benefits of the old, “revue” style. It cleverly does so by making the Fred Astaire of Top Hat (1935) a dinosaur in a modern, showbiz milieu, and by giving him a trial wherein he must grapple with the overbearing vision of an Orson Welles–like director (Jack Buchanan), and ultimately affirm his worth as an old-fashioned but adaptable “hoofer” in a dynamic hit show.

Like most musicals, The Band Wagon is about compromise, the marriage of antagonistic tendencies. The characters symbolize the extremes of lowbrow and highbrow culture: Tony Hunter (Astaire) versus his reluctant leading lady Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) from ballet. But when push comes to shove, such cultural divisions break down easily: Tony turns out to be a fine art connoisseur, and Gaby will belt out “I See a New Sun” on stage like a song-and-dance trouper. This aesthetic melding is also a literal romance, clinched by the immortal pas de deux in Central Park, “Dancing in the Dark.”

Mainly, however, The Band Wagon is a delightfully colorful “montage of attractions”—starting with the high-energy comedic contributions of Nanette Fabray and Oscar Levant, alter egos for the writers Betty Comden and Adolph Green. Minnelli gets to show off many kinds of mise-en-scène: playing on décor and architecture in the scene where Buchanan pitches his “Faust” while characters in three adjoining rooms eavesdrop; fluidly moving a group of performers through switches in mood in the indelible “That’s Entertainment”; enjoying the purely theatrical novelty of the kooky number “Triplets.”

But the ultimate spectacle is the extraordinary, eleven-minute “Girl Hunt: A Murder Mystery in Jazz,” a film noir parody (in vibrant color), in which Michael Kidd’s dance choreography explodes in stylized arabesques of familiar gestures (shooting, smoking, fighting) and the stars turn on their glamor, whether in erotic display (Charisse) or the simple joy of walking (Astaire). AM

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1950s




MADAME DE . . . (1953)

France / Italy (Franco London, Indus, Rizzoli) 105m BW

Language: French

Director: Max Ophüls

Producer: Ralph Baum

Screenplay: Marcel Achard, Max Ophüls, Annette Wademant, from the novel Madame de by Louise de Vilmorin

Photography: Christian Matras

Music: Oscar Straus, Georges Van Parys

Cast: Charles Boyer, Danielle Darrieux, Vittorio De Sica, Jean Debucourt, Jean Galland, Mireille Perrey, Paul Azaïs, Josselin Hubert Noël, Lia Di Leo

Oscar nomination: Georges Annenkov, Rosine Delamare (costume)

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Few films establish so much, on so many levels, with such stunning economy, as the sublime Madame de . . . directed by Max Ophüls. Louise (Danielle Darrieux) is “Madame de . . .” because she is anonymous, typical of her privileged class; it is only the earrings we see in the opening frames—about to be pawned—that precipitate her into a drama. As those earrings are moved the camera moves with them, finally revealing Louise in a mirror, amid her material possessions. From that moment on, Ophüls will never let us overlook the underpinnings of this wealthy world: the flows of money and debt, the ubiquitous servants on call, the etiquette of preparation before public appearances. Even the journey from bedroom to front door becomes an elegant sociological exposé.

After home and the pawnshop, there is the church (site of bourgeois hypocrisy) and the opera, where all is show; there we will meet Louise’s husband, André (Charles Boyer), “debonair” as long as he can control the affairs (both his own and hers) that define this “sophisticated” marriage. By the time the earrings come back into André’s hands a third time—and Louise has fallen dangerously in love with Donati (Vittorio De Sica)—what could have easily been a cute conceit (the earrings linking all characters, reminiscent of Ophüls’s earlier La Ronde [1950]) ultimately comes to articulate all the fine, crucial distinctions of plot and theme. For Louise, who lives in a state of denial about the conditions that enable her supposed freedom, the earrings are a token of her love with Donati; for André, they are a sign of possession, of the patriarchal, military, and aristocratic power he wields over other people’s destinies.

Madame de . . . is by turns brittle, brutal, compassionate, and moving. Ophüls delineates this world with Brechtian precision, yet he never discounts the strength or significance of stifled, individual yearnings. Even as the characters writhe in their metaphoric prisons or shut these traps on each other, their passions touch us: supremely, when André closes the windows on Louise like a jailer as he declares, half whispering in secret: “I love you.” AM

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1950s




FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)

U.S. (Columbia) 118m BW

Director: Fred Zinnemann

Producer: Buddy Adler

Screenplay: James Jones, Daniel Taradash, from novel by James Jones

Photography: Burnett Guffey

Music: George Duning, James Jones, Fred Karger, Robert Wells

Cast: Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra, Philip Ober, Mickey Shaughnessy, Harry Bellaver, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Warden, John Dennis, Merle Travis, Tim Ryan, Arthur Keegan, Barbara Morrison

Oscars: Buddy Adler (best picture), Fred Zinnemann (director), Daniel Taradash (screenplay), Frank Sinatra (actor in support role), Donna Reed (actress in support role), Burnett Guffey (photography), William A. Lyon (editing), John P. Livadary (sound)

Oscar nominations: Montgomery Clift (actor), Burt Lancaster (actor), Deborah Kerr (actress), Jean Louis (costume design, BW), Morris Stoloff, George Duning (music)

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Notwithstanding the famously iconic scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling and smooching in the Hawaiian surf, Fred Zinnemann’s version of James Jones’s best seller about life on a U.S. Army base in 1941 immediately prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is a somewhat modified affair. Although the language, the sex, and the violence may have been toned down, the focus on adultery, prostitution, corruption, and sadistic bullying ensured that From Here to Eternity was welcomed as an unusually adult Hollywood movie worthy of eight Oscars. With the passing of time, the film’s sensationalist elements have come to feel less daring, and it’s the vivid performances of its starry cast that now stick in the memory. Lancaster is the principled but pragmatic Sergeant Warden. Montgomery Clift is Prewitt, the bugler new to the barracks (whose conscientious refusal to box for his platoon’s team provokes prejudicial treatment by the officers), and Frank Sinatra is his friend Maggio, picked on by obnoxious stockade sergeant Fatso (a memorable Ernest Borgnine). Inevitably, perhaps, in this deeply “masculine” study of rugged courage and individual honor in conflict with the conformist expectations of the community at large, the actresses fare less well. English rose Kerr is just slightly self-conscious as a sultry American adulteress, and Donna Reed plays a dancehall whore passed off as a hostess.

Zinnemann probably wasn’t quite right to direct such fare. A rather meticulous craftsman who progressed from modest but reasonably efficient fillers to rather self-consciously “significant” films, he was here at what would prove a turning point in his career. The Oscars meant he could go on to more conspicuous “quality” films, but this movie might have benefited from a less cautiously “realistic” touch. After all, it’s really a melodrama, and a touch of lurid expressionism would not have gone amiss. That said, the film is good on the dynamics of bullying, on officers conveniently turning a blind eye to misdemeanors, and on the prejudices that infect any closed group. Plus he did get those sturdy performances out of his actors. And after that roll in the surf barracks life would never seem the same again. GA

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1950s




TOKYO STORY (1953)

Japan (Shochiku) 136m BW

Language: Japanese

Director: Yasujiro Ozu

Producer: Takeshi Yamamoto

Screenplay: Kôgo Noda, Yasujiro Ozu

Photography: Yuharu Atsuta

Music: Kojun Saitô

Cast: Chishu Ryu, Chieko Higashiyama, Setsuko Hara, Haruko Sugimura, Sô Yamamura, Kuniko Miyake, Kyôko Kagawa, Eijirô Tono, Nobuo Nakamura, Shirô Osaka, Hisao Toake, Teruko Nagaoka, Mutsuko Sakura, Toyoko Takahashi, Toru Abe

Steven jay schneider

“Isn’t life disappointing?” asks a teenage girl of her widowed sister-in-law at her mother’s funeral. “Yes,” comes the answer—with a smile. This brief exchange, near the close of Yasujiro Ozu’s masterpiece Tokyo Story, typifies the unsentimental mood of becalmed acceptance that distinguishes his work. The performances, setting (the middle-class home the girl has shared with, until now, both of her elderly parents), and dialogue are wholly naturalistic in tone, and never for a moment seem as if they’ve been arranged as part of some grand climax; yet by the time the words are uttered, they carry enormous emotional and philosophical weight.

Ozu’s films were marvelously understated, deceptively simple affairs, mostly depicting the everyday domestic and professional rituals of middle-class Japanese life with an idiosyncratic lack of emphasis (dramatic or stylistic) that might mislead the inattentive into believing them banal. Here, all that happens is that the old folks leave their youngest daughter at home in the provinces to visit their other children in Tokyo; they’ve never been to the capital, but make the effort in the knowledge that time is running short. But the kids have their own families now, and shunt their parents around, barely disguising their need to get on with their busy lives in postwar Japan. Only their daughter-in-law, who lost her husband in the war, seems to have enough time for them. Not that they’d complain, any more than she would.

All this is observed, as was Ozu’s custom, with a static camera placed a couple of feet off the ground; there is only one shot in the film that moves—and even then it tracks with inconspicuous slowness, albeit at the very moment when the old folks decide to go home. So how does Ozu hold our attention, when what we see or hear is so uninflected by what most viewers consider dramatic or unusual? It all comes down to the contemplative quality of his gaze, implying that any human activity, however “unimportant,” is worthy of our attention. In contrast to his own particular (and particularly illuminating) cinematic style, his characters’ experiences, emotions, and thoughts are as “universal” as anything in the movies—a paradox that has rightly enshrined this film’s reputation as one of the greatest ever made. GA

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1950s




ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953)

U.S. (Paramount) 118m BW

Director: William Wyler

Producer: Robert Wyler, William Wyler

Screenplay: Ian McLellan Hunter, John Dighton

Music: Georges Auric

Photography: Henri Alekan, Franz Planer

Cast: Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Albert, Hartley Power, Harcourt Williams, Margaret Rawlings, Tullio Carminati, Paolo Carlini, Claudio Ermelli, Paola Borboni, Alfredo Rizzo, Laura Solari, Gorella Gori, Heinz Hindrich, John Horne

Oscars: Audrey Hepburn (actress), Edith Head (costume), Ian McLellan Hunter (Dalton Trumbo) (best writing, motion picture story)

Oscar nominations: William Wyler (best picture), William Wyler (director), Ian McLellan Hunter (Dalton Trumbo), John Dighton (screenplay, writing), Eddie Albert (actor in support role), Hal Pereira, Walter H. Tyler (art direction), Franz Planer, Henri Alekan (photography), Robert Swink (editing)

Steven jay schneider

If the filmmakers knew exactly what they had on their hands at the time, they might have retitled Roman Holiday as A Star is Born. Audrey Hepburn had only appeared in a few European roles and in a Broadway production of Gigi when she was cast as a princess in William Wyler’s film. Needless to say, the role fit, Roman Holiday was a hit, and Hepburn was catapulted to the top of Tinseltown royalty. She was the Cinderella story made real by the magic of Hollywood.

Roman Holiday itself actually presents the flip side to the Cinderella fable. Hepburn’s Princess Ann is tired of the pomp and circumstance of her official duties. One night she slips out from under her handlers’ control and, under the guise of an everyday girl, encounters American journalist Joe Bradley (Gregory Peck). He recognizes the princess as the possible scoop of his career, but as he gets to know her better he feels terrible about taking advantage of her innocence. As the two tour the city, they realize they’re falling in love, but the realities of their respective situations may make such a relationship impossible. So they enjoy the city and all its charms, knowing that this short time they spend together may be the last.

Peck and Hepburn are excellent as the two mismatched lovers, and Eddie Albert is perfect as Peck’s eager tagalong cameraman. Wyler, one of Hollywood’s most reliable directors, shot the film on location in Rome, and the city’s landmarks help enhance the already magical story. Just as essential is the enjoyable script, which proved controversial because it was penned by blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo. It was literally decades before Trumbo finally got the credit he deserved for helping to craft such a wonderful film.

The rest of the crew didn’t need to wait nearly as long—Roman Holiday earned a whopping ten Academy Award nominations, including a win for the relatively unknown Hepburn. She’d be cast as the ingenue many more times over in her career, but it was this film that officially and auspiciously marked her arrival. JKl

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1950s




LE SALAIRE DE LA PEUR (1953)

WAGES OF FEAR

France / Italy (CICC, Filmsonor, Fono, Vera) 141m BW

Language: French / English / Spanish / German

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Producer: Raymond Borderie, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Louis Wipf

Screenplay: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jérôme Géronimi, from novel by Georges Arnaud

Photography: Armand Thirard

Music: Georges Auric

Cast: Yves Montand, Charles Vanel, Peter van Eyck, Antonio Centa, Darling Légitimus, Luis De Lima, Jo Dest, Darío Moreno, Faustini, Seguna, William Tubbs, Véra Clouzot, Folco Lulli, Jeronimo Mitchell

Berlin International Film Festival: Henri-Georges Clouzot (Golden Bear)

Cannes Film Festival: Henri-Georges Clouzot (grand prize of the festival), Charles Vanel (special mention—acting)

A withering depiction of greed and the corrupting influence of capitalism disguised as an adventure film, Henri Georges-Clouzot’s Wages of Fear justifiably stands as possibly the most tension-filled movie ever made. Set in South America, two teams compete to complete a relatively straightforward task: transport a truckload of nitroglycerin along a three-hundred mile mountain pass to the site of an oil refinery fire so that the oil company can then blow the pipeline and put out the blaze. The catch? Notoriously unstable and sensitive, the nitro cargo will blow the drivers to bits if they’re not exceedingly careful.

With sadistic invention Clouzot throws as many obstacles in the way of the two trucks as they race (at a snail’s pace) through the bumpy mountain pass. Hairpin turns and rickety bridges would pose their own innate problems were the trucks not primed to blow, and each pothole or falling rock brings with it the possibility of instant doom. It isn’t the promise of glory that sets each pair of drivers on such a dangerous task, either, but the promise of cash, and as the film proceeds you begin to wonder how far they will go to get their hands on the money.

Vitally, Clouzot precedes the death-defying action with a long segment—at one point cut for its political sentiment—set in a slum of a South American crossroads where wanderers and vagabonds end up after they have nowhere else to go, and where we learn that the rogues willing to risk their lives for money are in many ways almost not worth knowing. Their suicidal actions are driven by selfishness and desperation, traits to be exploited by the opportunistic corporation that cynically holds out the carrot on the stick for these de facto mules. Indeed, full of distrust and dislike, the motley crew of mercenaries act with a primal, feral quality, posing as much of a threat to one another as the truckloads of explosives do to them all. It’s a lose-lose situation, as the finish line promises financial reward at the cost of spiritual ruin. JKl

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1950s




THE NAKED SPUR (1953)

U.S. (Loew’s, MGM) 91m Technicolor

Director: Anthony Mann

Producer: William H. Wright

Screenplay: Sam Rolfe, Harold Jack Bloom

Photography: William C. Mellor

Music: Bronislau Kaper

Cast: James Stewart, Janet Leigh, Robert Ryan, Ralph Meeker, Millard Mitchell

Oscar nomination: Sam Rolfe, Harold Jack Bloom (screenplay)

The third of the remarkable series of Westerns director Anthony Mann made with James Stewart in the 1950s, The Naked Spur has Stewart as Howard Kemp, an embittered bounty hunter trying to earn money to buy back the ranch he lost when his wife was unfaithful to him during the Civil War. Along the trail he falls in with Jesse (Millard Mitchell), an elderly prospector, and Anderson (Ralph Meeker), a renegade army officer. Eventually Stewart gets his man, a sardonic killer named Ben (Robert Ryan), but Kemp’s troubles are just beginning. The arduous journey through the wilderness to bring Ben to justice tests Kemp to the limits.

What makes this an exceptional film is, first, the tautly scripted and finely acted exploration of the tensions between the characters: Kemp and Ben each strive to gain psychological supremacy, with Ben using his girlfriend Lina (Janet Leigh) as bait as he senses Kemp’s vulnerability beneath the tough exterior. James Stewart gives a brilliant portrayal of a man on the edge of hysteria. Second, Mann has a wonderful way with mountain scenery, using the arduous nature of the terrain as a physical counterpoint to the characters’ inner turmoil. Virtually the entire film was shot on location. EB

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1950s




PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953)

U.S. (Fox) 80m BW

Director: Samuel Fuller

Producer: Jules Schermer

Screenplay: Samuel Fuller, from story by Dwight Taylor

Photography: Joseph MacDonald

Music: Leigh Harline

Cast: Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, Thelma Ritter, Murvyn Vye, Richard Kiley, Willis Bouchey, Jerry O’Sullivan, Harry Carter, George E. Stone, George Eldredge, Stuart Randall, Frank Kumagai, Victor Perry, Emmett Lynn, Parley Baer

Oscar nomination: Thelma Ritter (actress in support role)

Venice Film Festival: Samuel Fuller nomination (Golden Lion)

A minor phenomenon of the early Cold War, the cycle of anticommunist spy film genre produced one masterpiece, Pickup on South Street. A pickpocket must choose between patriotism and profit after he swipes a top secret microfilm. Pickup transcends its subgenre through its dynamic style and vivid depiction of New York lowlife. Samuel Fuller displays a prodigious range of stylistic invention, finding fresh visual concepts for nearly every scene. The key ingredient is the close-up, with the camera shoved in the actors’ faces so aggressively you can almost see their breath fogging the lens. These copious close-ups signal the film’s placement of the intimate over the ideological, its endorsement of actions motivated not by abstractions but by love, loyalty, and guilt on the closest personal level.

The main actors never did better work: cocky cynic Richard Widmark, bighearted bimbo Jean Peters, sweaty rat Richard Kiley, and, especially, unapologetic stoolie Thelma Ritter. The most powerful scene depicts a weary Ritter facing obliteration by gunman Kiley. In a film so devoted to the personal, it is fitting that her greatest fear is not death itself but an unmarked grave. As she says in one of the script’s many punchy lines, “If I was to be buried in Potter’s Field, it would just about kill me!” MR

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1950s




GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (1953)

U.S. (Fox) 91m Technicolor

Director: Howard Hawks

Producer: Sol C. Siegel

Screenplay: Charles Lederer, from novel by Anita Loos and play by Joseph Fields and Anita Loos

Photography: Harry J. Wild

Music: Harold Adamson, Hoagy Carmichael, Leo Robin, Jule Styne

Cast: Jane Russell, Marilyn Monroe, Charles Coburn, Elliott Reid, Tommy Noonan, George Winslow, Marcel Dalio, Taylor Holmes, Norma Varden, Howard Wendell, Steven Geray, Henri Letondal, Leo Mostovoy, Alex Frazer, George Davis

Steven jay schneider

It is not the most famous number in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but the song “When Love Goes Wrong” captures what is most infectious about this garish, hilariously camp musical. Dorothy (Jane Russell) and Lorelei (Marilyn Monroe) mope at an outdoor Parisian café about the difficulty of sustaining romances with men. As a crowd gathers, the two women warm to the increasingly expansive rhythm of their lament, which soon has them out of their seats, striding and strutting with bystanders in the style of choreographer Jack Cole. And then the commotion winds down: the music thins, the crowd disperses, and our heroines are gliding away in a cab—from banality to ecstasy and back again, beautifully.

Typical of the 1950s, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes is an acerbic comedy about gold digging, unafraid to mix sentimental dreams with brittle sarcasm, glamorous magic with a materialist sense of what a girl must do to get by—a set of merry contradictions immortalized in Monroe’s oft-imitated “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” As critic Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, the film is “an impossible object—a CinemaScope of the mind, a capitalist Potemkin.”

The film is (as theorists say) a palimpsest, picking up and discarding at whim bits of Anita Loos’s novel, its Broadway adaptation, songs by the teams of Leo Robin–Jule Styne and Hoagy Carmichael–Harold Adamson, and, above all, the possibilities accruing to its two powerhouse stars. Russell’s persona brings together raunchiness and practicality; Monroe is a potent mixture of slinky eroticism and childlike guilelessness, laced with a hint of savvy manipulation. The comic highpoint comes when the roles swap for Dorothy’s brash courtroom imitation of Lorelei.

Howard Hawks is generally regarded as a very classical, restrained director, but here he veers toward the crazy, spectacularly vulgar comedies of Frank Tashlin—a connection clinched by the presence of that wonderfully grotesque child George Winslow. The excess and oddity of certain set pieces (such as Russell’s deathless serenade addressed to indifferent musclemen, “Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love?”), and their frequently tangential relation to the nominal plot, are all part of what makes the film so enjoyable to a contemporary audience. AM

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1950s




THE BIG HEAT (1953)

U.S. (Columbia) 89m BW

Director: Fritz Lang

Producer: Robert Arthur

Screenplay: Sydney Boehm, from novel by William P. McGivern

Photography: Charles Lang

Music: Daniele Amfitheatrof, Arthur Morton

Cast: Glenn Ford, Gloria Grahame, Jocelyn Brando, Alexander Scourby, Lee Marvin, Jeanette Nolan, Peter Whitney, Willis Bouchey, Robert Burton, Adam Williams, Howard Wendell, Chris Alcaide, Michael Granger, Dorothy Green, Carolyn Jones

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Like Fritz Lang’s 1952 Western Rancho Notorious, The Big Heat is a ballad of “hate, murder, and revenge”: it opens with a close-up of a gun about to be used by corrupt cop Tom Duncan to commit suicide, and proceeds rapidly through jolting horrors that malform the characters. Cop Dave Bannion (Glenn Ford) turns from family man to obsessive when his wife (Jocelyn Brando) is blown up by a car bomb meant for him. Moll Debby (Gloria Grahame) is embittered when her thug boyfriend Vince (Lee Marvin) disfigures her with a faceful of hot coffee and takes up Bannion’s quest. In a crucial development, the embittered hero still can’t commit cold-blooded murder, and so a double has to step in to pull the last thread that allows justice to be done: the big heat that brings down crime boss Lagana (Alexander Scourby) is precipitated when Debby confronts and murders her “sister under the mink,” the crooked cop’s grasping widow.

Grounded more in political reality than most of Lang’s noirs, thanks to the hard-hitting detail of William P. McGivern’s novel and Sydney Boehm’s script, The Big Heat is one of a 1950s cycle of syndicate-runs-the-town crime exposés–others include The Phenix City Story (1955) and The Captive City (1952). Lang’s direction is still indebted to expressionism here, with sets that reflect the characters’ overriding personality traits: the cold luxury of the Duncan house, bought with dirty money; the tasteless wealth of Lagana’s mansion, with its hideous portrait of the mobster’s sainted mother and jiving teenage party; the penthouse moderne of Vince and Debby, where the police commissioner plays cards with killers; the cramped, poor-but-honest apartment of the Bannion family; and the hotel room where Bannion ends up, his life pared down to the need for vengeance. The finale is hardly comforting: after the fall of the crime syndicate, the hero returns to his desk in the Homicide Department. The welcome of workmates—expressed, of course, by an offer of coffee—is curtailed, and the end title appears over Bannion putting on his hat and coat to go out and deal with “a hit and run over on South Street.” KN

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1950s




LES VACANCES DE M. HULOT (1953)

MR. HULOT’S HOLIDAY

France (Cady Films, Specta Films) 114m BW

Language: French

Director: Jacques Tati

Producer: Fred Orain

Screenplay: Jacques Tati, Henri Marquet, Pierre Aubert, Jacques Lagrange

Photography: Jacques Mercanton, Jean Mousselle

Music: Alain Romans

Cast: Nathalie Pascaud, Michèle Rolla, Raymond Carl, Lucien Frégis, Valentine Camax

Oscar nomination: Jacques Tati, Henri Marquet (screenplay)

This enduring and endearing classic of French cinema revealed Jacques Tati, in only his second feature as a director, to be one of the medium’s most inventive and original stylists. A virtually plotless and wordless succession of incidents occurring at a beachside resort, the film milks laughter from the most seemingly banal minutiae of everyday life. Alongside the elaborately staged events—such as a pack of travelers racing from one train platform to the next as incomprehensibly distorted loudspeaker messages blare—there are many droll, lovely moments where nothing much is happening at all. People just sit, eat, read, and stare, determined to be in holiday mode at all times. The stoic silliness of it all is extremely infectious.

Tati understood as finely as Alfred Hitchcock that mise-en-scène is not something to be imposed by filmmakers but discovered within the rituals of everyday life: how close people sit to each other in a dining room; the codes governing when people are allowed to look at one another; all the rules of etiquette and public deportment in play during the free-but-structured time of the French holiday period—Tati found the inspiration for his comedy in such acute observation.

The film rigorously controls the comic timing, spatial set-ups, and post-synchronized sounds of its brilliantly conceived gags—even the oft-repeated noise of a spring door is funny, due to the way Tati “musicalizes” it. He takes familiar gag forms—like the Keatonesque manner in which the hero berserkly imitates the movements of an exercise-freak—and then makes them strange through the way he shoots and cuts the action, often quickly switching attention to another gag beginning nearby.

Although in his later films Tati deliberately restricted his own on-screen appearances, here the gangly, awkward figure of his eponymous Hulot is a major source of charm and hilarity—and there is even the poignant trace of a tentative but missed love intrigue. Forever hesitating before entering any space, forever apologizing and politely greeting everyone present once he does, Hulot cannot fail to trigger some calamity with his over-anxious body movements—culminating in the cinema’s most inspired display of fireworks. AM

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1950s




VIAGGIO IN ITALIA (1953)

VOYAGE IN ITALY

France / Italy (Titanus, Italia, Junior, Ariane, S.E.C., SCG, Sveva) 100m BW

Language: English / Italian

Director: Roberto Rossellini

Producer: Adolfo Fossataro, Alfredo Guarini, Roberto Rossellini

Screenplay: Vitaliano Brancati, Roberto Rossellini

Photography: Enzo Serafin

Music: Renzo Rossellini

Cast: Ingrid Bergman, George Sanders, Leslie Daniels, Natalia Ray, Maria Mauban, Anna Proclemer, Jackie Frost, Paul Müller

French director Jacques Rivette once wrote that Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage in Italy “opens a breach [that] all cinema, on pain of death, must pass through.” This is evident from the first shots, sudden and raw—a shaky, forward-driving view down a road into Naples; a glimpse of the landscape going by; and finally two stars, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, shipwrecked far from Hollywood in a plotless, not-quite-picaresque road-movie cruise in which they express the deepest levels of character through terse banalities and simple, mundane gestures.

Nowadays, critics talk about the “comedy of remarriage,” a genre in which couples put their union to the test and, after many complications, reaffirm it. Voyage in Italy is that rarer thing: a drama of remarriage, where the spark of revitalization must be found within the undramatic flow of daily togetherness. The Joyces, Alex (Sanders) and Katherine (Bergman), bored and resentful of each other, are in a state of suspension. Being on vacation leaves them disquieted, sometimes distressed, by the foreign culture that surrounds them. The food is different, sleep beckons at odd hours under the sun, and there are encounters with strangers who offer distraction or temptation.

And then there is the landscape, the cities of Naples, Capri, and Pompei. Voyage in Italy typifies the radical turn in Rossellini’s work of the 1950s: no longer “social issue” Neorealism, but an inner, emotional realism, prefiguring Michelangelo Antonioni and especially the Jean-Luc Godard of Contempt (1963). But there is still a sense of documentary reality in the views Katherine sees from her car, in the churches, catacombs, mud pools, and archaeological excavations. This insistent environment adds context, history, and even mythology to the personal, marital story. It brings the past to bear upon the present, prompting the characters to endlessly recall formative moments. And it places this one, small crisis into a great, cosmic cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.

Little is explained in Voyage in Italy, but everything is felt: This is a film that can proudly end—just before yet another shot of a passing, ordinary crowd—with a sweeping crane shot and the age-old declaration “I love you.” AM

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1950s




UGETSU MONOGATARI (1953)

TALES OF UGETSU

Japan (Daiei) 94m BW

Language: Japanese

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Producer: Masaichi Nagata

Screenplay: Matsutarô Kawaguchi, Akinari Ueda, Yoshikata Yoda, from stories “Asaji Ga Yado” and “Jasei No In” by Akinari Ueda

Photography: Kazuo Miyagawa

Music: Fumio Hayasaka, Tamekichi Mochizuki, Ichirô Saitô

Cast: Masayuki Mori, Machiko Kyô, Kinuyo Tanaka, Eitarô Ozawa, Ikio Sawamura, Mitsuko Mito, Kikue Môri, Ryosuke Kagawa, Eigoro Onoe, Saburo Date, Sugisaku Aoyama, Reiko Kondo Shozo Nanbu, Kozabuno Ramon, Ichirô Amano

Oscar nomination: Kusune Kainosho (costume)

Venice Film Festival: Kenji Mizoguchi (Silver Lion, Golden Lion nomination)

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In the mid-1950s, when the international circuit of film festivals got underway, the cineastes of the West finally discovered what their Japanese counterparts had known for years: This Kenji Mizoguchi fellow was really something special. Ugetsu monogatari (literally, The Story of Ugetsu; commonly known simply as Ugetsu) was the film on which the international gaze focused. Though it is not necessarily Mizoguchi’s best (that honor could just as easily go to the profoundly moving 1939 The Story of the Late Chrysanthemums), it is the one for which he is still best known in Europe and America, and surely one of the great masterpieces of world cinema.

Mizoguchi had been writing and directing films since the 1920s, but we have no one, really, to blame for the fact that his work went largely unseen in the West, because Japan’s was an insular film market. But when Ugetsu did hit Western shores, it hit hard: critics from Europe and the United States alike praised it vigorously, heralding it as the bellwether of an entirely new way of filmmaking. They may have been correct. But what is it that makes Ugetsu so remarkable?

Key to the film is the mixing of the real and the supernatural, a theme that infiltrates Mizoguchi’s framing and his actors’ performances at every turn. The master pulls us from one realm of existence into the other—sometimes with warning, sometimes without. Mizoguchi’s control over his film’s tone is precise: the aura of unearthliness and unholiness never quite dissipates.

But this is no ordinary ghost story. Ugetsu uses the real/supernatural split to explore issues of love, honor, responsibility, and family; each one of these themes is touched in some way by the ghost world Mizoguchi carefully maps atop the familiar world, and not one of them emerges unchanged. The foolish men and the long-suffering women of Ugetsu all go through wrenching transformations brought about by the interaction of the supernatural with the real.

Ugetsu is troubling, perplexing, and beautiful. Mostly, though, it is beautiful, and truly humbling: To watch it is to be in the presence of greatness. EdeS

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1950s




SHANE (1953)

U.S. (Paramount) 118m Technicolor

Director: George Stevens

Producer: Ivan Moffat, George Stevens

Screenplay: A.B. Guthrie Jr., from story by Jack Schaefer

Photography: Loyal Griggs

Music: Victor Young

Cast: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon De Wilde, Jack Palance, Ben Johnson, Edgar Buchanan, Emile Meyer, Elisha Cook Jr., Douglas Spencer, John Dierkes, Ellen Corby, Paul McVey, John Miller, Edith Evanson

Oscar: Loyal Griggs (photography)

Oscar nominations: George Stevens (best picture), George Stevens (director), A.B. Guthrie Jr. (screenplay), Brandon De Wilde (actor in support role), Jack Palance (actor in support role)

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Shane is not the most glorious Western (that honor must go to El Dorado [1967]), nor the most masculine (that would be Red River [1948]), most authentic (McCabe & Mrs. Miller [1971]), strangest (Johnny Guitar [1954]), or the most dramatic (Stagecoach [1939]). But it is surely the most iconic, the Western that burns itself into our memory, the Western no one who sees it will ever forget. Everything in the film, in fact, is a pure image: the hero in white buckskin who happens to ride into town (Alan Ladd); the conniving rancher (Emile Meyer) with his mangy, ill-mannered cowboys; the humble homesteader (Van Heflin) with his doting, dutiful, domesticating wife (Jean Arthur) and twinkle-eyed son (Brandon De Wilde); the taciturn, cautious, aging bartender and owner of the general store (Paul McVey); the timid Swedish settler (Douglas Spencer); and the dark, sinuous, slimy, personification of Evil Incarnate, Wilson the hired gun (Jack Palance, dressed in black from head to toe). Indeed, the characters alone are the story.

The rancher wants the homesteader’s land. Shane settles in with the homesteader to help him protect it, in the process charming the tidy wife—perhaps a little too much—and the goggle-eyed boy completely out of his childhood. Wilson is imported to clean out the settlers, and but for the intervention of Shane—gun to gun, eye to eye, nobility vs. evil—he would surely succeed. But Good triumphs, so very deeply, indeed, that Shane comes to see his own effect on this charming little family, mounts his obedient steed, and rides away at film’s end into a sunset that outshines all sunsets. After him runs little Joey, crying out, “Shane! I love you, Shane!”

Shot at Jackson Hole, and before the days of widescreen and Dolby Stereo, Shane is studded with iconic visions. The purple Grand Tetons in the background, a deer grazing in a mirroring pool while the boy takes pot shots at it with his toy rifle, the filthy sneer on the rancher’s face when Starrett (Heflin) refuses to give up his land, the look in Palance’s eyes when he guns the gunless Frank “Stonewall” Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.) down in the mud. Director George Stevens makes the mud tactile, like melted chocolate.

For two images alone this film is worth seeing again and again. They testify, if not to history, then to cinema. When Wilson struts onto the wooden sidewalk with his spurred boots ringing, the town dog is shown up close, creeping away with its tail between its legs. And after Shane has met the Starretts and accepted their invitation to dinner, he feasts on an apple pie. This is the apple pie to end apple pies (the pie that taught Martha Stewart): steaming, golden, latticed, voluminous, lifted out of the oven by a pretty gal in blue gingham and served up with good black coffee. It is apple pie like this that made the American West, we may well think; not guns, not cattle, not the dreamy far-sighted gaze toward the next horizon. MP

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1950s




BEAT THE DEVIL (1953)

G.B. / U.S. / Italy (Rizzoli-Haggiag, Romulus, Santana) 100m BW

Language: English / Italian

Director: John Huston

Producer: Jack Clayton

Screenplay: Truman Capote, John Huston, from novel by James Helvick

Photography: Oswald Morris

Music: Franco Mannino

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Jennifer Jones, Gina Lollobrigida, Robert Morley, Peter Lorre, Edward Underdown, Ivor Barnard, Marco Tulli, Bernard Lee, Mario Perrone, Giulio Donnini, Saro Urzì, Aldo Silvani, Juan de Landa

Easily one of the most irreverent, tongue-in-cheek movies made under Hollywood auspices, Beat the Devil stands out for many reasons. First, the amount and level of talent involved here is truly extraordinary. John Huston directs from a witty, bitter script on which he collaborated with none other than Truman Capote; cinematographer Oswald Morris was assisted by future cinematographic giant Freddie Francis; even a young Stephen Sondheim made his way onto the set as the clapper boy!

Then there’s the cast. Humphrey Bogart served as one of the producers, and it was his clout that enabled the film to be made in the first place. Onscreen, he’s joined by Gina Lollobrigida and Jennifer Jones, along with two of the all-time-great character actors, Peter Lorre and Robert Morley. This is a production where you can sense the actors had a tremendous amount of fun on the set.

The story has something to do with uranium rights in Africa, but it’s not really that important. Traditional rules of cause and effect are loosened here, thanks partly to the fact that the film was an independent, international coproduction. This led to increased creative freedom and financial autonomy, and the talents behind Beat the Devil plainly took advantage here. This is a one-of-a-kind movie that slipped through the cracks. EdeS

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1950s




JOHNNY GUITAR (1954)

U.S. (Republic) 110m Trucolor

Director: Nicholas Ray

Producer: Herbert J. Yates

Screenplay: Philip Yordan, from novel by Roy Chanslor

Photography: Harry Stradling Sr.

Music: Victor Young

Cast: Joan Crawford, Sterling Hayden, Mercedes McCambridge, Scott Brady, Ward Bond, Ben Cooper, Ernest Borgnine, John Carradine, Royal Dano, Frank Ferguson, Paul Fix, Rhys Williams, Ian MacDonald

The melodrama of Johnny Guitar is so over-the-top that some will find it laughable. Others will fall under the spell of its hypnotic power. Joan Crawford plays Vienna, the owner of a saloon that stands on land valued by the railroad. Mercedes McCambridge is Emma Small, the black-clad spinster daughter of a big landowner who lusts after the Dancing Kid (Scott Brady), who in turn wants Vienna, who has another man in her past: Johnny Guitar, played by Sterling Hayden. Driven crazy by frustrated desire, Emma leads a lynch mob to burn down Vienna’s saloon and hang the Kid. But Vienna stands firm. At the end there’s a shoot-out between Emma and Vienna, the kind of reversal of convention that has led some critics to claim the film for feminism. It’s also been read as an anti-McCarthy allegory, against mob hysteria and for those who make a stand on principle.

Whatever its ultimate meaning, the film, financed by the minor studio Republic, is boldly baroque in its use of strong colors, its bravura acting style (with Crawford in particular outstanding), and in the haunting beauty of its theme song, sung by the great Peggy Lee. If you can’t take this much artifice, perhaps you’d be safer watching documentaries. EB

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1950s




ON THE WATERFRONT (1954)

U.S. (Columbia, Horizon) 108m BW

Director: Elia Kazan

Producer: Sam Spiegel

Screenplay: Malcolm Johnson, Budd Schulberg, from articles by Malcolm Johnson

Photography: Boris Kaufman

Music: Leonard Bernstein

Cast: Marlon Brando, Karl Malden, Lee J. Cobb, Rod Steiger, Pat Henning, Leif Erickson, James Westerfield, Tony Galento, Tami Mauriello, John F. Hamilton, John Heldabrand, Rudy Bond, Don Blackman, Arthur Keegan, Abe Simon

Oscars: Sam Spiegel (best picture), Elia Kazan (director), Budd Schulberg (screenplay), Marlon Brando (actor), Eva Marie Saint (actress in support role), Richard Day (art direction), Boris Kaufman (photography), Gene Milford (editing)

Oscar nominations: Lee J. Cobb (actor in support role), Karl Malden (actor in support role), Rod Steiger (actor in support role), Leonard Bernstein (music)

Venice Film Festival: Elia Kazan (OCIC award, Silver Lion, Italian film critics award, Golden Lion nomination)

Steven jay schneider

“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.” One of the all-time great American films, On the Waterfront exploded on a country shaken by the betrayals and paranoia of the anticommunist scare. Searing and tender, it ushered into Hollywood a new kind of hard-hitting social realism, not least because it was filled with indelible performances from a number of New York theater’s hot postwar generation of naturalistic and Method actors.

Slow-witted but sensitive Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando, never more beautiful), a failed boxer turned longshoreman and errand boy for corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), is disturbed by his unwitting role in the murder of a disaffected docker. His guilt is exacerbated when he falls in love with the dead man’s sister, Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint in her film debut), but his illuminating crisis is his realization that he, too, has been sold out—most heartbreakingly by his older, smarter brother Charley (Rod Steiger), who is Friendly’s sharp lawyer and right-hand man. After Edie shames the initially ineffectual parish priest (Karl Malden) into leading the crusade against harbor union racketeering, Friendly’s intimidation turns more deadly. Terry painfully defies the code of silence and testifies at a congressional commission. Despite doing the right thing, Terry is ostracized for “ratting” by the waterfront community and is beaten to a pulp in the dockyard before his fearful comrades fall in behind him, breaking Friendly’s hold on their lives and labor.

The film was most visibly inspired by “Crime on the Waterfront,” a series of newspaper articles by Malcolm Johnson exposing racketeering in the New York/ New Jersey dockyards. Playwright Arthur Miller began working on a screenplay at the behest of director Elia Kazan. But when Kazan testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Miller broke with him. Kazan turned to a fellow “friendly witness,” writer Budd Schulberg. Both men’s reputations suffered permanent damage and On the Waterfront is frequently labeled their apology or defense. Kazan admitted he identified with Terry Malloy’s conflict of loyalties. Wherever one’s sympathies lie, the painful real-life background invested the film with a gut-wrenching, truthful emotional center for the realism of its subject and setting and for the naturalism of its performances (complemented by Leonard Bernstein’s evocative score).

Terry confronting Charley in the back of a cab is the most often cited classic scene, but there are many other unforgettable moments: Brando fiddling with Saint’s little glove, putting it on his own hand; Terry discovering that all his lovingly cared for pigeons have been killed by the neighborhood boy who admired him; Terry beating down Edie’s door and forcing an admission of love as they slide down to the floor in a desperate kiss.

Decades later, it endures as an unflinching contemplation of betrayal. AE

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1950s




SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954)

U.S. (MGM) 102m Anscocolor

Director: Stanley Donen

Producer: Jack Cummings

Screenplay: Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, Dorothy Kingsley, from the story “The Sobbin’ Women” by Stephen Vincent Benet

Photography: George J. Folsey

Music: Adolph Deutsch, Saul Chaplin, Johnny Mercer, Gene de Paul

Cast: Jane Powell, Howard Keel, Jeff Richards, Russ Tamblyn, Tommy Rall, Marc Platt, Matt Mattox, Jacques d’Amboise, Julie Newmar, Nancy Kilgas, Betty Carr, Virginia Gibson, Ruta Lee, Norma Doggett, Ian Wolfe

Oscar: Adolph Deutsch, Saul Chaplin (music)

Oscar nominations: Jack Cummings (best picture), Albert Hackett, Frances Goodrich, Dorothy Kingsley (screenplay), George J. Folsey (photography), Ralph E. Winters (editing)

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a profoundly sexist and eminently hummable 1954 musical—supposedly set in the great outdoors, but mainly filmed on soundstages—with some terrific athletic Michael Kidd choreography and better-than-average direction by Stanley Donen. Based on a story by Stephen Vincent Benet, who took his plot from the rape of the Sabine women, it concerns six mangy fur-trapping brothers who go to town to find wives after big brother Adam (Howard Keel) marries Milly (Jane Powell). They wind up following their frontiersmen instincts by kidnapping the women, but then have to mope through the winter until their impromptu mates get around to forgiving them in the spring.

A fascinating glimpse at the kind of patriarchal rape fantasies that were considered good-natured and even “cute” at the time, performed to the catchy music of Johnny Mercer and Gene DePaul, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers includes Russ Tamblyn, Virginia Gibson, and Tommy Rall. Among the most memorable tunes, some of whose titles accurately pinpoint the movie’s sexual politics, are “Bless Your Beautiful Hide,” “Sobbin’ Women,” “Goin’ Courtin’,” “I’m a Lonesome Polecat,” and “Spring, Spring, Spring.” JRos

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1950s




LES DIABOLIQUES (1954)

France (Filmsonor, Vera) 114m BW

Language: French

Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Producer: Henri-Georges Clouzot

Screenplay: Henri-Georges Clouzot, Jérôme Géronimi, Frédéric Grendel, René Masson from the novel Celle qui n’était plus by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

Photography: Armand Thirard

Music: Georges Van Parys

Cast: Simone Signoret, Véra Clouzot, Paul Meurisse, Charles Vanel, Jean Brochard, Pierre Larquey, Michel Serrault, Thérèse Dorny, Noël Roquevert, Yves-Marie Maurin, Georges Poujouly, Georges Chamarat, Jacques Varennes, Robert Dalban, Jean Lefebvre

In a run-down, provincial public school, murderous passions seethe just below the surface. The put-upon, weak-hearted wife (Véra Clouzot) and mysteriously sensual girlfriend (Simone Signoret) of a sadistic headmaster (Paul Meurisse) murder him, dumping the corpse in the weeded-over swimming pool. When the pool is drained, the body is missing and the women start to lose their minds, especially when a pupil claims to have seen a ghost. Soon, the women too are seeing things, and something ghastly shows up in the bath.

A major international hit in 1954, Les Diaboliques has lost little of its power to disturb, though dozens of films (like Deathtrap [1982] and Hush . . . Hush, Sweet Charlotte [1964]) have borrowed its tricky storyline and made familiar the most shocking moments. Henri-Georges Clouzot directs with a gray cruelty that combines a nastily tangled storyline worthy of Hitchcock (the Master is rumored to have made Psycho to reclaim the King of Suspense crown he lost briefly to Clouzot) with three strong central performances and a marvelously seedy setting. The film has scenes of physical horror (one trick with contact lenses is unforgettably creepy), but Clouzot also sets the flesh creeping with incidences of ordinary nastiness, as when Meurisse forces his wife to eat a disgusting school dinner. KN

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1950s




ANIMAL FARM (1954)

G.B. (Halas and Batchelor) 72m Technicolor

Director: Joy Batchelor, John Halas

Producer: Louis De Rochemont, John Halas

Screenplay: Joy Batchelor, John Halas, Borden Mace, Philip Stapp, Lothar Wolff, from novel by George Orwell

Photography: S.G. Griffiths, J. Gurr, W. Traylor, R. Turk

Music: Matyas Seiber

Cast: Gordon Heath (narrator), Maurice Denham (all animals)

Steven jay schneider

Animal Farm was the first-ever feature-length British animated film (if you ignore a 1945 wartime instructional, Handling Ships). It was directed by the husband-and-wife team of Halas–Batchelor (the Hungarian-born John Halas and the English Joy Batchelor) and based on George Orwell’s mordant political fable of 1945.

At the time the film was produced, full-length animation was dominated by Disney. Determined to get away from Uncle Walt’s style of cutesy, cuddly animals, Halas–Batchelor eagerly accepted a commission from the American producer Louis De Rochement (best known for the March of Time newsreel series) to make the first seriously intended adult animated feature outside the Communist bloc. Until its final reel, Animal Farm sticks closely to the original novel, written by Orwell as a satire of the betrayal of the ideals of the Russian Revolution. On Manor Farm the animals revolt against their drunken, decadent owner and set up a democratic community, free from humans, in which “All Animals Are Equal.” But gradually the pigs, the most intelligent animals, engineer a totalitarian state under the dictatorship of the pig Napoleon, where “All Animals Are Equal—But Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others.” The mass of the animals, oppressed and terrorized, have just swapped one czar for another.

To make the film, Halas–Batchelor’s company was expanded to become the largest animation unit in Western Europe. The animation strikes a shrewd balance between stylization and naturalism—the animals are not anthropomorphized, and the farm backgrounds are rendered realistically. Real farmyard noises were recorded for the soundtrack. The classical composer Matyas Seiber (like Halas, a Hungarian-born Briton) contributes a powerful, emotive score that blends folk elements with modernism, and all the animals are voiced—with astounding versatility—by the actor Maurice Denham.

Animal Farm faithfully preserves the anger, compassion, and sardonic humor of Orwell’s novel. The cruelty of certain incidents isn’t muted—to the alarm of parents at the time, who had taken their children along expecting Disneyesque sentimentality. Only the ending is modified to something more optimistic. De Rochemont and Halas–Batchelor agreed that the bleak despair of the original was more than audiences could take. The change can claim some historical justification, too; Stalin died while the film was in production. PK

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1950s




REAR WINDOW (1954)

U.S. (Paramount, Patron) 112m Technicolor

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Producer: Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay: John Michael Hayes, from the story “It Had To Be Murder” by Cornell Woolrich

Photography: Robert Burks

Music: Franz Waxman

Cast: James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Wendell Corey, Thelma Ritter, Raymond Burr, Judith Evelyn, Ross Bagdasarian, Georgine Darcy, Sara Berner, Frank Cady, Jesslyn Fax, Rand Harper, Irene Winston, Havis Davenport

Oscar nominations: Alfred Hitchcock (director), John Michael Hayes (screenplay), Robert Burks (photography), Loren L. Ryder (sound)

Steven jay schneider

The apotheosis of all his simmering and barely suppressed psychosexual fixations, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is also probably (with the possible exception of the 1958 film Vertigo) the most successful merger of entertainment, intrigue, and psychology of the director’s remarkable career. A fascinating study of obsession and voyeurism—Rear Window combines a perfect cast, a perfect screenplay, and particularly a perfect set for a movie—that’s even better than the sum of its parts.

For maximum freedom, Hitchcock constructed an intricate replication of a crowded and constantly bustling New York City tenement building and its equally busy courtyard. Each window offers a glimpse into another life and in effect tells another story. In one unit, a composer hunches over his piano struggling with his latest work. In another, a dancer practices compulsively. One apartment houses a lonely woman, unlucky in love, and another an amorous newlywed couple.

L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) is a successful photojournalist sidelined with a broken leg. Stuck in a wheelchair all day, he has nothing better to do than spy on his neighbors. Or at least that’s what he claims, because his fashion model girlfriend (and would-be wife) Lisa (played by a surprisingly carnal Grace Kelly in one of her final roles before retiring) and his cranky caretaker Stella (Thelma Ritter) perceptively observe that he’s merely addicted to the thrill of voyeurism.

The notion of anyone able to keep their eyes off a character as beautiful and luminous as Lisa is hard to believe, until Jeff begins to suspect one of his neighbors (a glowering Raymond Burr) of murdering his wife. Soon enough, Jeff has dragged Lisa and Stella into the mystery, obsessively studying Burr’s character’s behavior for signs of his guilt. But as Jeff’s furtive investigation advances, so do the ongoing stories of all of his other neighbors, oblivious to the nefarious plot possibly unfolding literally right next door.

Rear Window, the film, is constructed every bit as thoroughly as its elaborate set. Watching it is like watching a living, breathing ecosystem, with the added thrill of a murder mystery thrown in for good measure. Hitchcock relishes the film’s particularly postmodern scenario: we, the viewers, are entranced by the actions of these characters, who are in turn entranced by the actions of still other characters. It’s a vicious circle of obsession laced with black humor and a dash of sexiness.

Indeed, although the nosey Jeff may discover a murder in his urban hamlet, it’s the numerous romances transpiring in the other units that first draw his attention to the courtyard peep show. It’s wholly ironic that his obsessions with the love lives of his neighbors prevent him from acknowledging the romantic interest of Lisa. In fact, the bachelor in Jeff looks to his neighbors as an excuse to ward off her advances. It is only when his actions put her in danger that he finally understands that what he has in front of him is better than anything he can see out the window. JKl

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1950s




A STAR IS BORN (1954)

U.S. (Transcona, Warner Bros.) 181m Technicolor

Director: George Cukor

Producer: Vern Alves, Sidney Luft

Screenplay: Moss Hart, from the 1937 screenplay by Alan Campbell and Dorothy Parker, story by William A.Wellman

Photography: Sam Leavitt

Music: Harold Arlen, Ray Heindorf

Cast: Judy Garland, James Mason, Jack Carson, Charles Bickford, Tommy Noonan, Lucy Marlow, Amanda Blake, Irving Bacon, Hazel Shermet

Oscar nominations: James Mason (actor), Judy Garland (actress), Malcolm C. Bert, Gene Allen, Irene Sharaff, George James Hopkins (art direction), Jean Louis Mary, Ann Nyberg, Irene Sharaff (costume), Ray Heindorf (music), Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin (song)

A Star Is Born is George Cukor’s musical remake of William Wellman’s 1937 film. It is the very best of four films (Cukor also directed What Price Hollywood? [1932], considered the source of A Star Is Born) about a marriage doomed by the meteoric rise to stardom of the younger wife and the self-destruction of the falling idol/mentor she loves. William Wellman’s 1937 movie starring Fredric March and Janet Gaynor is still a moving drama; the 1976 rock version with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson is memorable only for Streisand’s singing. But Cukor’s musical, in which Judy Garland (in a triumphant comeback) and James Mason are both terrific, broke new ground in the musical genre by propelling dramatic narrative with songs—signally in Garland’s tortured “The Man that Got Away” and the show-stopping production number “Born in a Trunk.” Not to be outdone, Mason’s Norman Maine is spellbinding in his drunken display at the Academy Awards.

Part Hollywood satire—amusingly in the studio transformation of plain Esther Blodgett into glamorous Vicky Lester, acidly in the publicity machine entrapping Esther and Norman—the film is a beautiful blend of music, wit, and romantic tragedy, done with compelling conviction. In 1983, more than twenty minutes of previously cut footage was restored, including two numbers written for Garland by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin. AE

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1950s




THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954)

U.S. / Italy (Figaro, Rizzoli-Haggiag) 128m Technicolor

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Producer: Franco Magli

Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Photography: Jack Cardiff

Music: Mario Nascimbene

Cast: Humphrey Bogart, Ava Gardner, Edmond O’Brien, Marius Goring, Valentina Cortese, Rossano Brazzi, Elizabeth Sellars, Warren Stevens, Franco Interlenghi, Mari Aldon, Alberto Rabagliati, Enzo Staiola, Maria Zanoli, Renato Chiantoni, Bill Fraser

Oscar: Edmond O’Brien (actor in support role)

Oscar nomination: Joseph L. Mankiewicz (screenplay)

The surface appeal of Joseph Mankiewicz’s The Barefoot Contessa is obvious: Ava Gardner at her most glamorous as the rags-to-riches star Maria Vargas alongside Humphrey Bogart at his most acerbic yet tender as filmmaker Harry Dawes; the flood of quotable quotes in the dialogue (“It’s never too late to develop character”); and the intriguing allusions to real-life celebrities, including Rita Hayward and Howard Hughes. But there is much more going on.

The film owes much to Citizen Kane (1941), especially the mosaic structure, which offers various points of view on a character—ultimately affirming only that person’s inscrutability. From the initial “springboard” situation of Maria’s funeral, eight flashbacks proceed from four narrators. Long before Pulp Fiction (1994), Mankiewicz contrives a sequence that shows Maria’s transition from Bravano (Marius Goring) to Vincenzo (Rossano Brazzi) from two viewpoints.

Even more intricate is the film’s journey through three social worlds–Hollywood show business, the French leisure set, and Italian aristocracy–that register as uncanny variations on each other, each one enclosed, decadent, and dying. Significantly, this suite of decay echoes the presentation of the theater world in Mankiewicz’s 1950 classic, All About Eve. While his films are sometimes justly criticized as stagey and word-bound, the richness and coherence of The Barefoot Contessa come from its metaphor of theatrical spectacle. Mankiewicz’s signature touch is the “frieze,” where the plot stops and a narrator fills us in on the character and background of each “player” at a table. AM

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1950s




LA STRADA (1954)

THE ROAD

Italy (Ponti–De Laurentiis) 94m BW

Language: Italian

Director: Federico Fellini

Producer: Dino De Laurentiis, Carlo Ponti

Screenplay: Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli

Photography: Otello Martelli, Carlo Carlini

Music: Nino Rota

Cast: Anthony Quinn, Giulietta Masina, Richard Basehart, Aldo Silvani, Marcella Rovere, Livia Venturini

Oscar: Italy (best foreign language film)

Oscar nomination: Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli (screenplay)

Venice Film Festival: Federico Fellini (Silver Lion, Golden Lion nomination)

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La Strada is Federico Fellini’s fourth film, and it is the one that made his international reputation. Starring Anthony Quinn as Zampanò the Strongman and the director’s wife, Giulietta Masina, as the waif Gelsomina, it is a story of love and jealousy set in the circus, a milieu to which Fellini returns time and again. Zampanò does a hackneyed routine of bursting out of chains wrapped around his chest. He needs an assistant, and so he buys Gelsomina from her mother to accompany him on the road. She acts as a clown, her gestures reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin. When they join a traveling circus, Gelsomina is temporarily fascinated by an acrobat, the Fool, played by Richard Baseheart. Although he treats her badly, Zampanò becomes jealous of the Fool and his actions lead the film to its powerful conclusion.

La Strada is told in a fabulist style that begins to move away from the postwar Neorealism of much of Italian cinema, a movement with which Fellini was intimately involved as a screenwriter. Although it is shot on location, it could take place in the present day or it could be 100 years ago. Zampanò and Gelsomina are archetypes, simple characters driven by the most elemental emotions and desires. The action of the film plays out as though it is predetermined and these characters must act as they do, which makes the story tragic. Masina’s moving portrayal of the abused but plucky Gelsomina would define her screen persona in several later Fellini films, and in much of her other work as an actress. Quinn is equally unforgettable as the brutish strongman, incapable of understanding his own feelings toward Gelsomina. Both actors highlight the disjuncture between their characters’ performances and the realities of their lives.

Throughout his work, Fellini was fascinated by the tension between a character’s theatrical facade and his or her unexplored, messy interior life. La Strada won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and is probably the director’s most accessible and well-loved picture. Snobs and sophisticates should not hold that against this complex and moving film, which continues to provide new insights and ideas on each subsequent viewing. RH

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1950s




SHICHININ NO SAMURAI (1954)

THE SEVEN SAMURAI

Japan (Toho) 155m BW

Language: Japanese

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Producer: Sojiro Motoki

Screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni

Photography: Asakazu Nakai

Music: Fumio Hayasaka

Cast: Takashi Shimura, Toshirô Mifune, Yoshio Inaba, Seiji Miyaguchi, Minoru Chiaki, Daisuke Katô, Isao Kimura, Keiko Tsushima, Yukiko Shimazaki, Kamatari Fujiwara, Yoshio Kosugi, Bokuzen Hidari, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Kokuten Kodo, Jiro Kumagai

Oscar nominations: So Matsuyama (art direction), Kôhei Ezaki (costume)

Venice Film Festival: Akira Kurosawa (Silver Lion, Golden Lion nomination)

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Akira Kurosawa is the Japanese director best known around the world. His thrilling, compellingly humane epic The Seven Samurai is his most enduringly popular, most widely seen masterpiece. Its rousing, if less profound, gunslinging Hollywood remake, The Magnificent Seven (1960), is the most successful of the several Western pictures modeled on Kurosawa’s work—including the 1964 film The Outrage, a reworking of Rashomon (1950), and the landmark spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars (1964), lifted wholesale by Sergio Leone from Yojimbo (1961). The entertaining cultural crossover is delightful testimony to cinema’s universal vocabulary and appeal. Kurosawa was inspired by the Westerns of John Ford and made a bold departure from the limited traditions of the typical Japanese jidai-geki, historical costume pictures with the emphasis on swordfights in a medieval Japan depicted as a fantasy land. The Seven Samurai is packed with a blur of astounding action, comic incident, misadventure, social drama, beautiful character development, and the conflict between duty and desire, all treated with immaculate care for realism.

A poor village of farmers, at the mercy of bandits who return every year to rape, kill, and steal, take the radical decision to fight back by hiring ronin (itinerant, masterless samurai) to save them. Because they are able to offer only meager portions of rice in payment, the nervous emissaries who set out in search of swords for hire are lucky to encounter Kambei (Takashi Shimura), an honorable, compassionate man resigned to doing what a man’s gotta do, despite knowing he will gain nothing from doing it. Very much the hero figure, he recruits five other wanderers willing to fight for food or fun, including a good-natured old friend, a dewy-eyed young disciple, and a master swordsman of few words. Hot-headed, impulsive, clownish young Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune) is rejected by the seasoned men, but the peasant masquerading as a samurai tags along anyway, frantic to prove himself and impress Kambei. The villagers treat them with mistrust but gradually bonds form, a love affair blossoms, the children are drawn to their heroes, and Kambei organizes a spirited resistance that astonishes, enrages, and ultimately overcomes the invaders.

The film is tireless, fast moving, and economical, eliminating unnecessary exposition. It evokes mystery and sustains a sense of apprehension—with quick shots and short cuts making up the peasants’ search for potential protectors and putting their case to Kambei. There are many scenes of overwhelming visual and emotional power—a dying woman drags herself from a burning mill and hands her baby to Kikuchiyo, who sits down in the stream in shock, sobbing and crying, “This baby, it’s me. The same thing happened to me,” the mill wheel, aflame, turning behind him. But the greatest moment of the film is the resolution: the three survivors survey their comrades’ graves as the forgetful villagers below turn all their attention to their joyful rice-planting ritual. AE

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1950s




SENSO (1954)

THE WANTON COUNTESS

Italy (Lux) 117m Technicolor

Language: English / Italian

Director: Luchino Visconti

Producer: Domenico Forges Davanzati

Screenplay: Carlo Alianello, Giorgio Bassani, Paul Bowles, Suso Cecchi d’Amico, Giorgio Prosperi, Luchino Visconti, Tennessee Williams, from novella by Camillo Boito

Photography: Aldo Graziati, Robert Krasker

Music: Anton Bruckner

Cast: Alida Valli, Farley Granger, Heinz Moog, Rina Morelli, Christian Marquand, Sergio Fantoni, Tino Bianchi, Ernst Nadherny, Tonio Selwart, Marcella Mariani, Massimo Girotti

Venice Film Festival: Luchino Visconti (Golden Lion nomination)

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Senso was Count Luchino Visconti’s third film, and his first in color. Set in Venice and Verona in the 1860s, on the verge of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s expulsion of the Austrians and the creation of the modern Italian state, it marked a complete departure from the working-class milieu of the director’s earlier films, Ossessione (1942) and La Terra Trema (1948). Nevertheless, Senso’s overt theatricality is not so different from the extravagant passions of Ossessione, and it is no less “authentic” for its sumptuous aristocratic setting (the director apparently insisted on daily fresh cut flowers for every room on the set, whether or not they would be filming there).

Alida Valli is the Countess Livia Sepieri, a Garibaldi supporter who intercedes on her cousin’s behalf when he suicidally challenges an Austrian officer to a duel. Lt. Franz Mahler (Farley Granger) characteristically ducks out of the fight. A handsome, unprincipled charmer, Mahler seduces the Countess, who will recklessly betray her husband, her honor, and even her country for his love.

With screenplay credits for both Tennessee Williams and Paul Bowles—among six writers in total—Senso is a distinctly high-class melodrama. An actress who was past her prime, eyes flashing, teeth bared, Valli seems barely able to credit her own actions as she flings caution to the wind and stakes everything on a feckless character who makes no bones about his own cowardice. (The film was actually retitled The Wanton Countess for its belated U.S release.) Farley Granger is even better, especially in the big climactic scene where he lets rip with his self-loathing. Similarly unbalanced, sadomasochistic relationships recur in Visconti’s later films, especially The Damned (1969) and Death in Venice (1971), but neither quite matched the ferocity displayed here.

Senso begins at the opera, and Anton Bruckner’s score punctuates every dramatic turning point with an operatic thundercrack. “I like opera very much, but not when it happens offstage,” the Countess remarks, as she tries to dissuade Mahler from taking up her cousin’s challenge. Italy’s most renowned director of operas, Visconti clearly believed otherwise. TCh

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1950s




SILVER LODE (1954)

U.S. (Pinecrest) 81m Technicolor

Director: Allan Dwan

Producer: Benedict Bogeaus

Screenplay: Karen DeWolf

Photography: John Alton

Music: Louis Forbes

Cast: John Payne, Lizabeth Scott, Dan Duryea, Dolores Moran, Emile Meyer, Robert Warwick, John Hudson, Harry Carey Jr., Alan Hale Jr.

In this gripping Western, John Payne stars as Dan Ballard, a respected and well-liked rancher in the small town where he has lived for the past two years. During the town’s Fourth of July celebration, four strangers ride into town, led by a belligerent and unpleasant thug (Dan Duryea) who claims to be a U.S. Marshal with a warrant for Ballard’s arrest for murder. Over the course of the action (which is equivalent in span to the film’s running time), the townspeople turn against Ballard, eventually forming a mob to hunt him down as he labors to prove his innocence.

Silver Lode is the Allan Dwan film par excellence: concise, plain, inventive, fluid, ironic, unspectacular-but-beautiful. No Western, probably, has more shots through windows (Dwan likes to stage scenes in depth and to emphasize situations in which characters observe each other), and few make such splendid use of the familiar architecture and decor of the Hollywood Western town. In a single stunning shot, Dwan’s camera tracks with Payne as he runs four blocks across town. Thanks to the director’s visual assurance (and the lighting genius of John Alton), Silver Lode is one of the best of the American cinema’s many underrated Westerns. CFu

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1950s




CARMEN JONES (1954)

U.S. (Fox, Carlyle) 105m Color

Director: Otto Preminger

Producer: Otto Preminger

Screenplay: Harry Kleiner, from the novel Carmen by Prosper Mérimée

Photography: Sam Leavitt

Music: Georges Bizet, Oscar Hammerstein

Cast: Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, Olga James, Joe Adams, Brock Peters, Roy Glenn, Nick Stewart, Diahann Carroll, LeVern Hutcherson, Marilyn Horne, Marvin Hayes

Oscar nominations: Dorothy Dandridge (actress), Herschel Burke Gilbert (music)

Berlin International Film Festival: Otto Preminger (Bronze Bear)

The legendarily beautiful and troubled African-American actress Dorothy Dandridge, like so many sex symbols, was a martyr to her beauty in life, while in death she lies buried beneath her own mythology. Carmen Jones is the substance behind the hype, a potent explanation of her appeal and hold on the imagination so long after her death.

Based on Bizet’s opera Carmen, Carmen Jones is the story of a hungry, ambitious young woman (Dandridge) whose narcissism and greed lead to the destruction of Joe (Harry Belafonte), a good man who loves her dearly. Surprisingly, both Dandridge and Belafonte (who were singers in their own right) were dubbed by Marilyn Horne and LeVern Hutcherson respectively. Yet filled with classic songs (the lyrics and book are by the legendary Oscar Hammerstein II) and a first-rate supporting cast that includes Pearl Bailey and a young Diahann Carroll, the film is packed with sensational musical numbers (mostly shot in single takes by director Otto Preminger) that are integral to the film. But as impeccable as craft, crew, and supporting cast are, this is Dandridge’s vehicle all the way. Her Carmen is one of the fieriest, most viscerally devastating sex goddesses ever caught on film—her cool feline strut, curvaceous body, blazing eyes, and mixture of lust and contempt for the men caught in her snare add up to a creature that’s otherworldly. It’s a powerhouse performance that elevates an excellent film into the realm of classic. EH

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1950s




SANSHÔ DAYÛ (1954)

SANSHÔ THE BAILIFF

Japan (Daiei) 120m BW

Language: Japanese

Director: Kenji Mizoguchi

Producer: Masaichi Nagata

Screenplay: Yahiro Fuji, Ogai Mori, Yoshikata Yoda, from story by Ogai Mori

Photography: Kazuo Miyagawa

Music: Fumio Hayasaka, Tamekichi Mochizuki, Kanahichi Odera

Cast: Kinuyo Tanaka, Yoshiaki Hanayagi, Kyôko Kagawa, Eitarô Shindô, Akitake Kôno, Masao Shimizu, Ken Mitsuda, Kazukimi Okuni, Yôko Kosono, Noriko Tachibana, Ichirô Sugai, Teruko Omi, Masahiko Kato, Keiko Enami, Bontarô Akemi

Venice Film Festival: Kenji Mizoguchi (Silver Lion, Golden Lion nomination)

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“Without compassion, a man is no longer human.” So states Taira (Masao Shimizu), a governor in medieval Japan being sent into exile because of his liberal policies, to his young son Zushiô. Together with his mother Tamaki (the great Kinuyo Tanaka) and his sister Anju, Zushiô flees from his family’s estate; betrayed by a priestess, Zushiô and Anju are sent off to the enormous slave-labor compound run by the notoriously cruel Sanshô (Eitarô Shindô), while their mother is kidnapped into prostitution on a distant island. Thus begins one of the great emotional and philosophical journeys ever made for the cinema. Possibly the high point in an unbroken string of masterpieces made by Kenji Mizoguchi shortly before his death, Sanshô the Bailiff features the perfection of a signature visual style, made up predominantly by long, complexly staged shots paced by gliding camera movements, that Mizoguchi had already begun to develop in the 1930s.

After this harrowing opening, the story jumps ahead several years. The adult Zushiô (Yoshiaki Hanayagi), strong but emotionally dead, has become one of Sanshô’s most reliable henchman; with unblinking cruelty, he carries out orders to torture and maim. One day Zushiô is ordered to leave an old, ailing woman outside the compound’s walls to die; Anju (Kyôko Kagawa) follows him ostensibly to help, but then a minor accident—the two fall down when trying to break off a tree branch—conjures up a childhood memory of their time together before being enslaved. Suddenly Zushiô realizes how horrible he has become; he and Anju decide to run away, but fearing they’ll be caught if they stay together, Anju sacrifices herself so her brother may escape.

Zushiô does escape, and eventually is able to reclaim his family’s noble standing. He returns, now as an official, to Sanshô’s compound; dismissing Sanshô, he turns the compound over to its inmates, who burn it down in a remarkable scene of orgiastic frenzy. Abandoning his official post, Zushiô goes off to find his mother. Years before, he and Anju had heard a story about an old, lame prostitute on an island who constantly sang a lament about her lost children; he goes to the island and, on a lonely stretch of beach, is reunited with his mother. He breaks down, asking forgiveness for all the evil he’s done; on the contrary, his mother assures him, his father would have been proud that his son lived so faithfully by his teachings.

If at this point you’re not a sobbing mass, there’s simply a hole in your soul. Mizoguchi’s worldview is pitch black: violence, betrayal, and wanton cruelty are simply the order of the day. Yet although one can’t change this, one can protest by simply staying true to an ideal. The battle between good and evil is finally a battle within oneself, and in the film’s magnificent final sequence, as mother and son huddle together sobbing, one feels that the love between them is the most powerful force in the universe; even if that love can’t conquer the world, it can transcend it. RP

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1950s




SALT OF THE EARTH (1954)

U.S. (Independent, Intl Union of Mine, Mill & Smelter Workers) 94m BW

Director: Herbert J. Biberman

Producer: Adolfo Barela, Sonja Dahl Biberman, Paul Jarrico

Screenplay: Michael Biberman, Michael Wilson

Photography: Stanley Meredith, Leonard Stark

Music: Sol Kaplan

Cast: Rosaura Revueltas, Will Geer, David Wolfe, Mervin Williams, David Sarvis, Juan Chacón, Henrietta Williams, Ernesto Velázquez, Ángela Sánchez, Joe T. Morales, Clorinda Alderette, Charles Coleman, Virginia Jencks, Clinton Jencks, Víctor Torres

This rarely screened classic is the only major American independent feature made by communists. A fictional story about the Mexican-American zinc miners in New Mexico striking against their Anglo management, Salt of the Earth was informed by feminist attitudes that are quite uncharacteristic of the period. The film was inspired by the blacklisting of director Herbert Biberman, screenwriter Michael Wilson, producer and former screenwriter Paul Jarrico, and composer Sol Kaplan. As Jarrico later reasoned, because they’d been drummed out of Hollywood for being subversives, they’d commit a “crime to fit the punishment” by making a subversive film. The results are leftist propaganda of a high order, powerful and intelligent even when the film registers in spots as naive or dated.

Basically kept out of American theaters until 1965, Salt of the Earth was widely shown and honored in Europe, but it has never received the recognition it deserves Stateside. Regrettably, its best-known critical discussion in the United States is a Pauline Kael broadside in which the film is ridiculed as “propaganda.” As accurate as Kael is about some of Salt of the Earth’s left-wing clichés, she indiscriminately takes some of her examples from the original script rather than the film itself, and gives no hint as to why it could remain so vital half a century later. JRos

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1950s




ARTISTS AND MODELS (1955)

U.S. (Paramount) 109m Technicolor

Director: Frank Tashlin

Producer: Paul Nathan, Hal B. Wallis

Screenplay: Don McGuire, Frank Tashlin, from the story Rock-A-Bye Baby by Michael Davidson and Norman Lessine

Photography: Daniel L. Fapp

Music: Harry Warren

Cast: Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Shirley MacLaine, Dorothy Malone, Eddie Mayehoff, Eva Gabor, Anita Ekberg, George Winslow, Jack Elam, Herbert Rudley, Richard Shannon, Richard Webb, Alan Lee, Otto Waldis

Like Douglas Sirk’s melodramas, Frank Tashlin’s crazy comedies exaggerate to the point of subversion the popular values of the American 1950s. Tashlin’s terrain was the media-sphere of advertising, TV, movies, and showbiz: By gleefully embracing and slyly satirizing this “plastic” arena of clichés and stereotypes, he anticipated Pop Art.

Artists and Models, which provided the Dean Martin–Jerry Lewis duo with its finest screen hour, is a dizzily self-reflexive play on movie illusion. Eugene Fullstack (Lewis) is a comic-book addict whose colorful dreams are transcribed—and secretly sold—by Rick Todd (Martin). They are mirrored by two women, sultry graphic artist Abby (Dorothy Malone) and ditzy Bessie (Shirley MacLaine). Tashlin’s endlessly inventive game of permutation and combination between these four characters builds to a great piece of burlesque mayhem: Eugene and Bessie’s delirious détournement of the kitsch romantic ballad “Innamorata.”

With a plot that launches without warning into an international espionage intrigue (enter Eva Gabor), and a splendid musical demonstration of image-and-sound artifice (“When You Pretend”), it is only fitting that the strategies of Artists and Models are echoed in the merry modernisms of Jacques Rivette (Celine and Julie Go Boating [1974]), P.T. Anderson (Punch-Drunk Love [2002]), and Australia’s Yahoo Serious (Mr. Accident [2000]). AM

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1950s




GUYS AND DOLLS (1955)

U.S. (Samuel Goldwyn) 150m Eastmancolor

Director: Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Producer: Samuel Goldwyn

Screenplay: Joseph L. Mankiewicz from play by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows and the story “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” by Damon Runyon

Photography: Harry Stradling Sr.

Music: Jay Blackton, Frank Loesser

Cast: Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra, Vivian Blaine, Robert Keith, Stubby Kaye, B.S. Pulley, Johnny Silver, Sheldon Leonard, Danny Dayton, George E. Stone, Regis Toomey, Kathryn Givney, Veda Ann Borg, Mary Alan Hokanson

Oscar nominations: Oliver Smith, Joseph C. Wright, Howard Bristol (art direction), Harry Stradling Sr. (photography), Irene Sharaff (costume), Jay Blackton, Cyril J. Mockridge (music)

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Hollywood’s stereotyping of national cultures regularly gives offense, but who can resist the glimpse of Havana, Cuba, in a central scene of Guys and Dolls? Suave gambler Sky Masterson (Marlon Brando) has talked prim, Salvation Army member Sarah Brown (Jean Simmons) into taking a plane and dining with him. As she gets drunk and succumbs to her reckless impulses, she is enflamed by the primal, Latin American drama unfolding around her: her instant rival, an exotic dancer, trying to seduce Sky. Soon the whole room is swept up in a hilarious dance of drunken passions.

The scene offers a magnificent example of Michael Kidd’s revolutionary choreography for film. Normal, everyday gestures, such as walking or pointing, are by degrees stylized, made angular and rhythmic, until the point of fullblown dance. The actions of individuals are woven into group patterns. And, above all, the staging incorporates movements that are deliberately ungainly, awkward, seemingly amateur—such as Sarah’s drunken lunges and swings.

Guys and Dolls is really two films in one, divided up for its dual male stars—and indeed, there is an over-the-table dialogue between Brando and Frank Sinatra that anticipates the Al Pacino–Robert De Niro encounter forty years later in Heat (1995). The Nathan Detroit (Sinatra) half is more indebted to writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz’s source, Damon Runyan’s tales of lovable, streetwise crooks (every “ethnic” tic of New York speech and behavior lovingly exaggerated). Nathan has a long-suffering dame, Adelaide (Vivian Blaine), which leads to amusing material about their fraught path to the altar, such as “Adelaide’s Lament” in Frank Loesser’s colorful score.

Although the more conventionally polished, show-stopping group numbers like “Luck Be a Lady” and “Sit Down, You’re Rockin’ the Boat” are the ones Broadway devotees remember best, it is in the more romantic, Sky–Sarah half that the film really soars, Mankiewicz for once overcoming his screen talkiness. The songs “If I Were a Bell” and “I’ll Know When My Love Comes Along” are glorious swellings of amorous emotion, and Mankiewicz surrounds them with a wonderful mise-en-scène of comings and goings, attractions and repulsions between these two admirable bodies. AM

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1950s




PATHER PANCHALI (1955)

India (Government of West Bengal) 115m BW

Language: Bengali

Director: Satyajit Ray

Screenplay: Satyajit Ray, from novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay

Photography: Subrata Mitra

Music: Ravi Shankar

Cast: Kanu Bannerjee, Karuna Bannerjee, Subir Bannerjee, Uma Das Gupta, Chunibala Devi, Runki Banerjee, Reba Devi, Aparna Devi, Haren Banerjee, Tulsi Chakraborty, Nibhanani Devi, Roma Ganguli, Binoy Mukherjee, Harimohan Nag, Kshirod Roy, Rama Gangopadhaya

Cannes Film Festival: Satyajit Ray (human document award, OCIC award—special mention)

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Based on a classic novel by the Bengali writer Bibhutibhusan Bandyopadhyay, Pather Panchali, Satyajit Ray’s first film, was eventually to form part of a trilogy together with Aparajito (1957) and The World of Apu (1959). Ray, who was working in a Calcutta advertising agency at the time, had great difficulty in raising the money to make his film. Eventually he borrowed enough to begin shooting, in the hopes that the footage would persuade backers to help him complete it. Though filming initially began in October 1952, it was not until early in 1955 that Pather Panchali was at last finished.

Apu (Subir Bannerjee) is a little boy growing up in a remote country village in Bengal. His parents are poor and can hardly provide food enough for Apu and his older sister Durga (Uma Das Gupta), let alone the aged woman known as Auntie (Chunibala Devi) who lives with them. In an early scene, Durga has stolen some mangoes, which she gives to Auntie, but the children’s mother, Sarbajaya (Karuna Bannerjee), scolds her. Later, Durga is accused by a more wealthy neighbor of stealing a necklace. Sarbajaya, shamed by the allegation, throws Durga out of the house. We see not only the distress of mother and daughter but Apu’s response too, as he implicitly sides with his sister.

These minor moments of drama are punctuated by greater tragedies. One of the best-known scenes in the film comes when the children quarrel and Durga has once more been scolded by her mother. She runs away across the fields, with Apu following. We see black smoke rising and then a train. Apu and Durga run toward it, excited by this vision of something from the wide world beyond their village. On the way back, chattering together, their quarrel made up, they encounter Auntie sitting in a bamboo grove. When Durga touches her, she keels over. She is dying.

The father, Harihar (Kanu Bannerjee), leaves for the city to try and make some money. While he is away, Durga catches pneumonia and dies. Unaware, the father returns, flushed with success and carrying gifts for his family, including a sari for Durga. Sarbajaya breaks down and weeps. Harihar collapses in grief. We observe Apu listening to his father’s cries.

Eventually Harihar decides to take the remainder of his family back to the city. In a telling moment, while helping clear the house Apu finds a necklace hidden in a bowl. So Durga did steal it after all; the knowledge makes Apu’s grief more poignant. Apu throws the necklace into a pond, where the weeds close over it.

Ray’s mise-en-scène has great delicacy, capable of expressing both strong emotion and lyrical delight. Few will forget the sequence in which Apu and Durga hear the sound of the traveling sweets seller. Although they have no money to buy, they trot along behind him, followed in turn by a curious dog; the little procession is reflected in a pool of water.

Helped by Ravi Shankar’s marvelous music, Pather Panchali achieved worldwide success, earning Ray recognition at the 1956 Cannes Film Festival. EB

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1950s




BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (1955)

U.S. (MGM) 81m Eastmancolor

Director: John Sturges

Producer: Herman Hoffman, Dore Schary

Screenplay: Howard Breslin, Don McGuire, Millard Kaufman, from the story “Bad Day at Hondo” by Howard Breslin

Photography: William C. Mellor

Music: André Previn

Cast: Spencer Tracy, Robert Ryan, Anne Francis, Dean Jagger, Walter Brennan, John Ericson, Ernest Borgnine, Lee Marvin, Russell Collins, Walter Sande

Oscar nominations: John Sturges (director), Millard Kaufman (screenplay), Spencer Tracy (actor)

Venice Film Festival: Spencer Tracy (actor), tied with cast of Bolshaya semya

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It’s 1945, just after World War II, and John J. Macreedy (Spencer Tracy) is a one-armed ex-army man who steps off the train in Black Rock, a remote California desert town. We don’t know what he’s come for, nor do the inhabitants. But they are hostile, and it soon becomes clear that they are hiding something. Director John Sturges slowly tightens the tension as Macreedy digs deeper into the town’s secret, while the inhabitants cut the phone wires and disable a car in which he tries to leave.

Set in an arid western landscape, to which the film’s CinemaScope ratio gives full value, and shot in color, mostly in blinding sunlight, Bad Day at Black Rock is sandwiched between a number of notable Sturges Westerns, including Escape from Fort Bravo (1953) and Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957). Yet despite its look, Black Rock is really more of a film noir, with its story of dark secrets in the past. There’s little physical action and hardly any gunplay, though one scene is memorable, when Macreedy is finally provoked to fight by the brutish Coley Trimble (Ernest Borgnine). The one-armed man reveals a repertoire of karate chops and punches that fell his opponent like a slaughtered ox.

Macreedy faces an impressive line-up of heavies here, including ringleader Reno Smith (Robert Ryan, whose hysteria is never far below the surface), and Lee Marvin in one of his most menacing roles as Hector David. Macreedy has to rely for help on the community’s weaker members: the reclusive Doc (Walter Brennan) and the drunken, cowardly sheriff (Dean Jagger). Eventually Macreedy manages to invest them with a little of his courage and they help him make a break, but ultimately he is forced to rely on his own ingenuity.

The town’s dirty secret proves to be the murder of a Japanese-American in the days following Pearl Harbor. The film was produced by Dore Schary, who tried to stand up to blacklisting and whose regime at MGM was marked by a number of liberal productions. Bad Day at Black Rock is a good example, a taut, expertly acted and directed thriller that pushes a fairly straightforward message about racial tolerance. But whatever its good intentions, it’s Tracy that we remember most. Few actors could project basic goodness so well, without a trace of sanctimoniousness. EB

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1950s




LES MAÎTRES FOUS (1955)

THE MAD MASTERS

France (Pléïade) 36m Color

Language: French

Director: Jean Rouch

Photography: Jean Rouch

Cast: Jean Rouch (narrator)

In 1954, ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch was invited by a small group of Hauka in the West African city of Accra to document their yearly religious ritual. Over the course of this ceremony, the Hauka went into a trancelike state and were possessed by spirits representing the Western colonialists (the engineer, the wife of the doctor, the governor-general, the cruel major, and so on.)

Though only thirty-six minutes long, the imagery in Les Maîtres Fous is striking and frequently alarming: possessed men, their eyes rolling, foaming at the mouth, burning their bodies with torches. Indeed, Peter Brook’s 1966 film Marat/Sade would reference the histrionics and made-up language here captured on camera by Rouch.

But as the director himself has noted, for the Hauka possession by spirits was truth, not art. While the film never fully explains the meaning behind the ritual, Rouch’s narration hints that participation in this religious ceremony results in a kind of catharsis, one that gives the Hauka—mostly rural migrant laborers—the strength needed to maintain their self-respect and continue working under harsh and oppressive conditions. As one scholar observes, the most intriguing issue raised by Les Maîtres Fous—a film in which “the oppressed become, for a day, the possessed and the powerful”—concerns the complex relation of the Hauka sect to their experience of colonialism. One of the masterpieces of ethnographic cinema. SJS

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1950s




HILL 24 DOESN’T ANSWER (1955)

Israel (Israel Motion Picture, Sik’or) 101m BW

Language: English / Hebrew

Director: Thorold Dickinson

Producer: Thorold Dickinson, Peter Frye, Zvi Kolitz, Jack Padwa

Screenplay: Peter Frye, Zvi Kolitz

Photography: Gerald Gibbs

Music: Paul Ben Chayim

Cast: Edward Mulhare, Michael Wager, Margalit Oved, Arik Lavi, Michael Shillo, Haya Harareet, Eric Greene, Stanley Preston, Haim Eynav, Zalman Lebiush, Azaria Rapaport

Made by British director Thorold Dickinson, who had come to Israel to make a documentary on the army (The Red Background), Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer was the first film of the national period to achieve an international success. Dickinson, who was influenced by the documentary/fiction films made in Britain during World War II, uses time-tested techniques of that genre (explanatory maps, an authoritative voice-over) to tell the story of a small Israeli unit defending a strategic hill position near Jerusalem against Arab attack in the 1948 war.

In the manner of David Lean’s In Which We Serve, Dickinson spends little time on the action itself, which becomes the framework for telling the stories of the four main characters: an American Jew, an Irishman, a native-born Israeli, and a Sephardic Jew. All die in the successful defense of the position, which is thereby assured, after the visit of a U.N. observer, as belonging to Israeli. Flashbacks detail the reasons why each soldier has chosen to fight. The film is fervently pro-Zionist, with Druse and British characters presented sympathetically and the Arabs as an anonymous, hostile, destructive force, whose reasons for attack are never made clear. Despite the obvious propaganda, Dickinson’s film is a small-scale masterpiece, an intriguing examination of motivation and heroism in the midst of deadly ideological struggle. BP

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1950s




THE LADYKILLERS (1955)

G.B. (Ealing Studios, Rank) 97m Technicolor

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Producer: Michael Balcon, Seth Holt

Screenplay: William Rose

Photography: Otto Heller

Music: Tristram Cary

Cast: Alec Guinness, Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, Peter Sellers, Danny Green, Jack Warner, Katie Johnson, Philip Stainton, Frankie Howerd

Oscar nomination: William Rose (screenplay)

Alexander Mackendrick’s final Ealing film (and also his darkest), made before he went to Hollywood and gave us the memorably bilious Sweet Smell of Success (1957), is a deliciously black comedy of English manners. A gang of thieves, hiding out disguised as a music quintet in the genteel Edwardian home of innocent and very, very proper little old lady Katie Johnson, decide they must murder her after she finds out about their recent robbery and insists they return the loot. The trouble is, the honor among these particular thieves is skewed, and although they can’t quite bring themselves to kill off the sweet old thing, they have no such reservations with regard to one another.

Essentially, then, The Ladykillers is a farcical variation on the classic heist-gone-wrong theme, fascinating both for its deft characterizations (the gang comprise a devious mastermind, a bluff military type, an Italianate hit man, a spivvish “Teddy boy,” and an intellectually challenged muscle man) and for its suggestion that postwar Britain, overly reverential toward an earlier age, was so divided as to be unable to move forward into the modern era. Otto Heller’s color camera work and Jim Morahan’s production design serve to reinforce the sense of a society trapped in the past. GA

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1950s




MARTY (1955)

U.S. (Hecht, Hill & Lancaster, Steven) 91m BW

Director: Delbert Mann

Producer: Harold Hecht

Screenplay: Paddy Chayefsky

Photography: Joseph LaShelle

Music: George Bassman, Harry Warren, Roy Webb

Cast: Ernest Borgnine, Betsy Blair, Esther Minciotti, Augusta Ciolli, Joe Mantell, Karen Steele, Jerry Paris

Oscars: Harold Hecht (best picture), Delbert Mann (director), Paddy Chayefsky (screenplay), Ernest Borgnine (actor)

Oscar nominations: Joe Mantell (actor in support role), Betsy Blair (actress in support role), Ted Haworth, Walter M. Simonds, Robert Priestley (art direction), Joseph LaShelle (photography)

Cannes Film Festival: Delbert Mann (Golden Palm and OCIC award)

During the golden age of American television, Paddy Chayefsky wrote the teleplay Marty. It was notable for its focus on the ordinary life of an unmarried butcher. Chayefsky then translated the script for the big screen with Ernest Borgnine as the star. Thereafter Marty Pilletti became a cause célèbre for seizing happiness outside the mold of mid-1950s conformity and consensus.

Tagged “It’s the love story of an unsung hero!” Marty thrilled audiences in its tale of a man who lives at home with his mother, the classic Italian matriarch. Trolling singles spots with his best friend Angie (Joe Mantell), Marty meets Clara (Betsy Blair) and they begin a ritual courtship. Angie quickly becomes jealous, and Mrs. Pilletti (Esther Minciotti) confounds matters with nightmares of abandonment, but Marty finally pursues Clara because he likes her.

Described thus, Marty suggests a yawn fest. But as a portrait of the times, especially of postwar neuroses about domestic tranquility, the film is rich with sociological value. Current cultural politics aside, the struggle for lonely people to find acceptance and love is without doubt a powerful theme. Giving the film buoyancy, this motive also sings the praises of the everyday and the beautiful, one and the same. GC-Q

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1950s




ORDET (1955)

Denmark (Palladium) 126m BW

Language: Danish

Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer

Producer: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Erik Nielsen, Tage Nielsen

Screenplay: Kaj Munk, from his play

Photography: Henning Bendtsen

Music: Poul Schierbeck, Sylvia Schierbeck

Cast: Hanne Agesen, Kirsten Andreasen, Sylvia Eckhausen, Birgitte Federspiel, Ejner Federspiel, Emil Hass Christensen, Cay Kristiansen, Preben Lerdorff Rye, Henrik Malberg, Gerda Nielsen, Ann Elisabeth Rud, Ove Rud, Susanne Rud, Henry Skjær, Edith Trane

Venice Film Festival: Carl Theodor Dreyer (Golden Lion)

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An extraordinary work, and arguably the finest achievement of this great filmmaker, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s adaptation of Kaj Munk’s play is a cinematic rarity in that, with the simplest of means and no special effects whatsoever, it manages to persuade the viewer that a miracle can happen.

Ordet concerns the Borgens, a farming family, loving and close but also beset by tensions arising from a number of disagreements and misfortunes—notably the wayward behavior of one of the grown-up brothers, seemingly insane due to excessive travails while studying religious thought. Not everyone thinks Johannes (Preben Lerdorff Rye) mad, however, and when Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), another brother’s wife, dies, her child asks him to bring her mother back—which, at the end of the film, he appears to do. In fact, Dreyer leaves it to the spectator to decide whether her revival is a matter of mere scientific inability to understand the improbable or of strength of faith, but the scene is remarkably powerful, precisely because he refuses both to explain and to rev up the film’s dramatic engines; the scene convinces thanks to its own air of tranquility and that of everything preceding it.

Indeed, this is in many respects the most “realistic” or “naturalistic” of films dealing with the power of faith, love (in every sense), and the supernatural; Dreyer eschews any kind of trickery. Although Henning Bendtsen’s pared-down yet outstandingly beautiful black-and-white images do endow the Borgens’s cottage and pastures with a lustrous quality, Dreyer’s quiet rhythms, long takes, and deceptively simple mise-en-scène may suggest that the movie is a straightforward chamber drama about ordinary farming folk. Only Johannes’s wheedling voice appears at all unusual, and he, after all, is not quite right in the head. Wherein lies Ordet’s greatness: by the time the “miracle” occurs, the film has earned our respect for its integrity—we understand the people on screen, because their actions, emotions, thoughts, and doubts are like our own. And when Inger opens her eyes once more, we probably feel much as they do: astonishment, happiness, and genuine wonder. For even if Ordet fails to convert us to religious belief, we have, at least, witnessed cinematic art of the highest order. GA

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1950s




BOB LE FLAMBEUR

BOB THE GAMBLER (1955)

France (OGC, Play Art, Cyme) 98m BW

Language: French

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville

Producer: Jean-Pierre Melville

Screenplay: Auguste Le Breton, Jean-Pierre Melville

Photography: Henri Decaë

Music: Eddie Barclay

Cast: Isabelle Corey, Daniel Cauchy, Roger Duchesne, Guy Decomble, André Garet, Gérard Buhr, Claude Cerval, Colette Fleury, René Havard, Simone Paris, Howard Vernon, Henry Allaume, Germaine Amiel, Yvette Amirante, Dominique Antoine

Bob the Gambler, Jean-Pierre Melville’s fourth feature, belongs to a very specific moment in history, and in the history of cinema. It is the milestone of a subtle turning point, and it maintains the flavor of this moment. Previously there was European cinema and American cinema. There was classic cinema and modern cinema. There were gangster films and comedies and daily chronicles. There was a guy, still rather young for a director, who at age thirty-nine, with one or two lives already behind him, had made a ghostly war film of incredible intensity (The Silence of the Sea [1949]), an adaptation from a Jean Cocteau novel (Les Enfants Terribles [1950]), and a lame melodrama (When You Read This Letter [1953]). Later, he would become the uncle of the New Wave, the French master of film noir, the director who paved the road for Sergio Leone, John Woo, and many others, the owner of a studio (quickly ruined), and the ultimate dandy of European filmmaking. But at the moment in question, Melville was working out the modernity of the second half of the twentieth century using the tools of the first half. Bob the Gambler is nostalgic and burlesque, yet filled with compassion and an accurate and respectful attention to places, objects, words, and the dreams everyone is entitled to live with.

Casino attacks, large-shouldered gangsters, macho talk, cars running fast in the dark, betrayal—sure! The film is a matter of human material, an inflection of voices, a remembrance of golden ages that never existed. It is often said that great films are universal and for all time. But Bob the Gambler is great for precisely the opposite reason: it belongs to its time and place, more or less consciously elaborating from that toward a completely different future. Although its ironic plot is important, the film’s essence lies in its beauty and melancholy. Certainly, the world has gone on since Bob the Gambler. But something was captured in this film, like in a glass snowglobe, for us to look back on and remember. And there is nothing sad in that. J-MF

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1950s




KISS ME DEADLY (1955)

U.S. (Parklane) 106m BW

Director: Robert Aldrich

Producer: Robert Aldrich

Screenplay: Mickey Spillane, A.I. Bezzerides, from novel by Mickey Spillane

Photography: Ernest Laszlo

Music: Frank De Vol

Cast: Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Juano Hernandez, Wesley Addy, Marian Carr, Marjorie Bennett, Maxine Cooper, Fortunio Bonanova, Cloris Leachman, Gaby Rodgers, Robert Cornthwaite, Nick Dennis, Jack Lambert, Jack Elam

Kiss Me Deadly is a thick-ear masterpiece, wrenched by director Robert Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides from Mickey Spillane’s trash novel, shot through with poetry (“Remember Me” by Christina Rosetti), unspeakable violence (the kicking naked legs of a woman tortured vaginally with a pair of pliers), hopped-up street talk (“3D-Pow! Va-va-voom!”), strange characters, and fringe-fantastical elements.

After credits that roll the wrong way and a nighttime drive, the desperate Cloris Leachman, naked under a trenchcoat, flags down thuggish private eye Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker) and drags him into a plot involving spies, hoodlums, cops, a mastermind so erudite that he can only speak in metaphors when warning a dim-bulb blonde not to tamper with something deadly enough to kill everyone in range, codeword-dropping secret agents (“Los Alamos . . . Trinity . . . Manhattan Project”) and a suitcase containing “the big whatsit” (a box of fissionable treasure that might be either pure plutonium or the head of Medusa). Meeker’s nasty hero (note his smile as he tortures innocent witnesses by breaking irreplaceable opera records or slamming hands in drawers) sucker punches his way through a cast of perverts and sluts, then (at least in some prints) goes up with a mushroom cloud that rises from a beach house at the 1950s apocalypse of a finish. KN

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1950s




THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (1955)

U.S. (Columbia) 104m Technicolor

Director: Anthony Mann

Producer: William Goetz

Screenplay: Philip Yordan, Frank Burt, from story by Thomas T. Flynn

Photography: Charles Lang

Music: George Duning

Cast: James Stewart, Arthur Kennedy, Donald Crisp, Cathy O’Donnell, Alex Nicol, Aline MacMahon, Wallace Ford, Jack Elam, John War Eagle, James Millican, Gregg Barton, Boyd Stockman, Frank DeKova

The Man from Laramie is the last of a run of outstanding Westerns made by Anthony Mann—shortly to graduate to bigger (perhaps less interesting) projects like El Cid (1961)—and James Stewart, whose angst-driven cowboys of the 1950s run parallel with his self-doubting Hitchcock heroes. The plot hook is almost noirish, prefiguring 1971’s Get Carter, as Will Lockhart (Stewart) investigates his brother’s death and gets embroiled in the Lear-like family struggle of a blind cattle baron (Donald Crisp) whose beloved son (Alex Nicol) is a sadistic weakling. Audiences in 1955 were shocked by the scene in which Nicol has his minions hold down Stewart and repays him for a wound by shooting the hero’s hand at point-blank range.

Trail-boss Vic Hansbro (Arthur Kennedy) is—as in Mann’s earlier Western Bend of the River (1952)—the hero’s near-equal in manliness, but turns out to be his demonic counterpart, driven by resentment of the family whose ranch he runs but will never inherit to a dirty deal involving selling guns to renegade Apaches. The Man from Laramie is a taut, tragic tale with a memorable hit theme song (“The West will never see a man with so many notches on his gun”) and Mann’s trademarked sense of the way desperate and obsessed men relate to each other and of the dangerous landscape that emphasizes their extreme psychological states. KN

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1950s




REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955)

U.S. (Warner Bros.) 111m Warnercolor

Director: Nicholas Ray

Producer: David Weisbart

Screenplay: Nicholas Ray, Irving Shulman, Stewart Stern

Music: Leonard Rosenman

Cast: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Corey Allen, William Hopper, Rochelle Hudson, Dennis Hopper, Edward Platt, Steffi Sidney, Marietta Canty, Virginia Brissac, Beverly Long, Ian Wolfe

Oscar nominations: Nicholas Ray (screenplay), Sal Mineo (actor in support role), Natalie Wood (actress in support role)

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Too often, this acknowledged classic is unwittingly damned with faint praise as being the finest of the three features in which James Dean starred during his tragically short life. Rebel remains by far the best 1950s film dealing with the then-new phenomenon of teenage delinquency. It is also a key work from Nicholas Ray, an enormously talented and distinctive director who, sadly, remains as underrated now as he was when he worked in Hollywood.

“You’re tearing me apart!” screams Dean’s Jim Stark at his bickering parents, giving voice to the agonizing confusion and alienation felt by so many of Ray’s protagonists. From his first film, They Live By Night (1949), the director had repeatedly treated the lonely predicament of America’s outsiders, showing himself especially sympathetic to the vulnerable young who looked for guidance from an older generation no wiser or happier than themselves. Jim feels let down by his family, his teachers, the cops, and most of his peers. The constant quest for kicks is as irresponsible (albeit less culpable, given their youth) as the adults’ refusal to confront moral dilemmas. Together with other lost souls, Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo), Jim tries to establish his own alternative family, one based on mutual understanding. Small wonder that the trio, brought together by the absurd, unnecessary death of a friend driven by boredom to test his worth in a clifftop “chickee run,” and united by idealistic notions of “sincerity,” lives in a derelict dreamhouse in the Los Angeles hills, well away from other people.

Ray’s response to the question of how to depict his young dreamers’ romantic idealism is admirably and exhilaratingly physical. The film was originally slated for black and white, but Ray persuaded Warners to let him shoot in color. The often luridly expressionist hues and Ray’s typically fraught CinemaScope compositions evoke the feverish nature of adolescent experience. Similarly, Ray uses architecture and setting, particularly the difference between public and private space, to heighten our understanding of the characters’ emotions. The darkness inside a planetarium becomes a space to indulge in private jokes, refuge, and reverie, even contemplation of the individual’s place in the cosmos. The terrace outside is later transformed by a lofty camera position into a sunlit arena where a bullfight-like knife fight is played out with appropriately histrionic gestures. Ray understands how, especially when young, we view our lives as drama. His immaculate sense of color, composition, cutting, lighting, and performance enhances the importance of the action.

One reason why he and Dean were made for each other; it wasn’t just the actor’s style but his whole body that gave dramatic life to the turmoil within. Seeing Dean’s Jim is witnessing a character being born, growing from moment to moment before our eyes. That, of course, is fitting for Rebel’s subject matter, but it also complements Ray’s direction in terms of how its acute physicality expresses the tormented vitality within. How sad, then, that the projects Ray and Dean planned to work on together never came to fruition. One great film had to suffice. GA

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1950s




THE PHENIX CITY STORY (1955)

U.S. (Allied Artists) 100m BW

Director: Phil Karlson

Producer: Samuel Bischoff, David Diamond

Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring, Crane Wilbur

Photography: Harry Neumann

Music: Harry Sukman

Cast: John McIntire, Richard Kiley, Kathryn Grant, Edward Andrews, Lenka Peterson, Biff McGuire, Truman Smith, Jean Carson, Kathy Marlowe, John Larch, Allen Nourse, Helen Martin, Otto Hulett, George Mitchell, Ma Beachie

Decent citizens fight a bloody war to drive out the vice racket that has earned their Alabama town the title of “Sin City, U.S.A.” Based on fact and shot on location, Phil Karlson’s The Phenix City Story relates to such postwar trends as the semidocumentary, the corrupt city exposé, and the syndicate gangster movie, but none of these labels accounts for the film’s extraordinary visceral power.

Although its graphic violence was virtually unprecedented in Hollywood, what makes this low-budget shocker truly innovative is its recognition that new content calls for new form. The Phenix City Story is a purposefully ugly movie, full of ugly rednecks, ugly juke joints, ugly camera angles (in the sense that they flout the conventions of “good” composition), and ugly, unaestheticized violence. A little girl’s glassy-eyed corpse is heaved onto a suburban lawn, a crippled old man is shot point-blank in the mouth, the townspeople are bloodied and blasted with battlefield-like regularity. The atrocities are either shoved abruptly in our faces or kept at a bewildering distance, as if they were overwhelming the picture’s capacity to represent them properly. Many movies since have portrayed more explicit and elaborate violence, but few have conveyed violence’s chaotic force with such intelligent crudeness. MR

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1950s




SOMMARNATTENS LEENDE (1955)

SMILES OF A SUMMER NIGHT

Sweden (Svensk) 108m BW

Language: Swedish

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Producer: Allan Ekelund

Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman

Photography: Gunnar Fischer

Music: Erik Nordgren

Cast: Ulla Jacobsson, Eva Dahlbeck, Harriet Andersson, Margit Carlqvist, Gunnar Björnstrand, Jarl Kulle, Åke Fridell, Björn Bjelfvenstam, Naima Wifstrand, Jullan Kindahl, Gull Natorp, Birgitta Valberg, Bibi Andersson

Cannes Film Festival: Ingmar Bergman (poetic humor award)

This first international success by Ingmar Bergman might in retrospect look like an anomaly in his career. In interviews Bergman often claimed he had no talent for comedy, and his later work in the genre—The Devil’s Eye (1960) and All These Women (1964)—would seem to confirm this sentiment. However, with Waiting Women (1952) and especially A Lesson in Love (1954), he found a successful formula for witty, sophisticated comedies featuring the two excellent actors Gunnar Björnstrand and Eva Dahlbeck (lovingly referred to by the director as “The Battleship Femininity”) as a middle-aged couple playfully tormenting each other.

Smiles of a Summer Night is a variation of this formula, transposed into a nineteenth-century moral comedy and with a theatrical plot heavily influenced by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Here the Björnstrand character is a middle-aged philistine and Dahlbeck’s an aging actress. Both are vain and self-important, living in separate relationships that have proved to be even more frustrating than their own former liaison. Egged on by an aphrodisiac wine and the magical twilight of a midsummer night, their—and their spouses’—true feelings are revealed. Everybody finds his/her true mate. But this new equilibrium of bourgeois complacency was later to be disrupted by Bergman with a vengeance in his hellish visions of marriage and midlife crisis in Scenes from a Marriage (1973) and From the Life of the Marionettes (1980). MT

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1950s




NUIT ET BROUILLARD (1955)

NIGHT AND FOG

France (Argos) 32m BW / Color

Language: French

Director: Alain Resnais

Producer: Anatole Dauman, Samy Halfon, Philippe Lifchitz

Screenplay: Jean Cayrol

Photography: Ghislain Cloquet, Sacha Vierny

Music: Hanns Eisler

Cast: Michel Bouquet, Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Hitler, Julius Streicher

Documentation of man’s inhumanity to man is as old as history itself. Even so, little prepared the world for the specific atrocities of the Holocaust, a concerted series of events so horrific that it still boggles the mind. Aware how the passage of time has a way of diluting memories, however powerful, filmmaker Alain Resnais (who later rose to greater prominence as the director of such features as Hiroshima Mon Amour [1959] and Last Year at Marienbad [1961]) decided to capture the Nazi atrocities on camera, if not for posterity then certainly as a lasting reminder of what we are capable of doing to one another.

The first film to truly address the Holocaust at a time when World War II still produced raw feelings, especially in Europe, Night and Fog juxtaposed black-and-white archival footage of concentration camps and their victims with pastoral color footage of the buildings and locations ten years later. Revealing the depths of distrust and denial that existed even a decade after the fall of the Third Reich, Resnais used footage from France, Belgium, and Poland, but conspicuously not from Germany. He showed that many of the people involved in the death camps either didn’t know how to deal with their own guilt and complicity or didn’t want to.

Denial is the driving point of Night and Fog. Resnais includes footage of the dead being bulldozed into mass graves, corpses hung on barbed wire fences, emaciated faces frozen in fear, skeletal nude bodies being paraded out for humiliation, and anonymous trains and trucks shipping who knows what to who knows where. He documents the gas chambers and crematoriums, as well as the Nazi’s gruesome attempts to find a use for the discarded possessions, bones, skin, and bodies of their victims.

Resnais, in his own footage, notes that these death camps existed not in isolated outposts but frequently nearby major cities, hinting that everything that transpired happened with at least some degree of complicity on the part of civilians. Yet even the Nazis in charge of the camps deny culpability. One after the other, each claims “I am not responsible.” But if not them, asks the film, then who?

Night and Fog is more concerned with attributing collective blame than with pointing fingers at any specific figure. Even so soon after the war, Resnais realized that the fleeting nature of memory risked erasure of the Nazi horrors. “A crematorium may look as pretty as a picture postcard,” notes the narrator. “Today tourists are photographed standing in front of them.” Working from a script by Holocaust survivor Jean Cayrol and enlisting an oddly meandering score by Hanns Eisler (a Marxist and German exile who was also deported from America during Hollywood’s own communist purge), Resnais lets the accumulated images of death and terror serve as a vivid rebuttal to any who would ever again turn their backs on such atrocities. If the brief but powerful Night and Fog does ultimately parallel the pithy form of a postcard, it is a postcard offering a perpetually valid message—evil can always resurface. JKl

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1950s




THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955)

U.S. (Paul Gregory, United Artists) 93m BW

Director: Charles Laughton

Producer: Paul Gregory

Screenplay: James Agee, from novel by Davis Grubb

Photography: Stanley Cortez

Music: Walter Schumann

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason, Evelyn Varden, Peter Graves, Don Beddoe, Billy Chapin, Sally Jane Bruce, Gloria Castillo

Steven jay schneider

Based on a slim, stark novel by Davis Grubb, Charles Laughton’s sole film as a director is a Depression-set fable of psychosis and faith, strikingly sinister and yet deeply humane. Told mostly from the point of view of children, the story is like a fairy tale in its simplicity, and yet seethes with adult complications. The trigger is a stash of money stolen by hard-up bandit Ben Harper (Peter Graves) and entrusted to his children John (Billy Chapin) and Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), which makes Ben’s desperate widow Willa (Shelley Winters) an object of attraction for one of the screen’s most unforgettable villains. “Reverend” Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), in black-and-white clerical garb with a puritan flat hat that curls into a set of demonic-looking horns, is associated with the Bible and a switchblade; with the words “love” and “hate” tattooed on his knuckles, his sermon consists of an allegorical talk about these forces locked in conflict illustrated as he arm wrestles with himself. Powell’s wooing of Willa is high pressure, fooling the woman (who ends up serenely drowned) but not the children, who flee after the murder, the money stashed in the little girl’s doll.

Mitchum, usually associated with cynical heroes, here plays a sincerely committed villain, moonlighting as a serial killer of loose women but sexually obsessed with the money he feels he needs to fund his bloody crusade. The nocturnal escape down river, shot in expressionist monochrome, is a magical sequence, with close-ups of strange-looking swampland flora and fauna. With Evil/Hate so powerfully conveyed, The Night of the Hunter needs an equally strong force to represent Good/Love. Laughton managed to get silent star Lillian Gish to come out of semiretirement to play Rachel, a kindly woman whose farm is open to the many underage runaways who come down the path. Like the snake in Eden, Powell threatens Rachel’s idyll, working his seamy charm on one of the older girls to find a way onto the farm. In a remarkable siege finale, Mitchum’s menacing drone of an edited hymn (“Leanin’”) is joined and completed by Gish, who knows the full lyric (“Lean on Jesus”) and adds her voice to his, banishing his darkness aurally before he is actually defeated. KN

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1950s




LOLA MONTÈS (1955)

THE SINS OF LOLA MONTES

France / West Germany (Florida Films, Gamma Film, Oska-Film, Union-Film) 110m Eastmancolor

Language: French / English / German

Director: Max Ophüls

Producer: Albert Caraco

Screenplay: Max Ophüls, Annette Wademant, Jacques Natanson, from the novel La Vie Extraordinaire de Lola Montès by Cécil Saint-Laurent

Photography: Christian Matras

Music: Georges Auric

Cast: Martine Carol, Peter Ustinov, Anton Walbrook, Henri Guisol, Lise Delamare, Paulette Dubost, Oskar Werner, Jean Galland, Will Quadflieg, Héléna Manson, Germaine Delbat, Carl Esmond, Jacques Fayet, Friedrich Domin, Werner Finck

German-born, naturalized French, Viennese by lifelong sensibility, Max Ophüls was ideally suited to film the life of Lola Montès, one of the great cosmopolitan femmes fatales. Montès, dancer and courtesan extraordinaire, cut a swathe of scandal through Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, numbering among her many lovers Franz Liszt and the King of Bavaria.

Ophüls’s film, his last (and his only one in color), is no conventional biopic. Instead, he mounts a lavish baroque extravaganza, part circus, part pageant, packed with flashbacks, and sends his famously mobile camera scaling around the elaborate decor. In the title role, Martine Carol gives a sullen, emotionally glazed performance, and Anton Walbrook’s pensive king all but steals the movie. But for all her limitations, Carol fits Ophüls’s conception. As always, his concern is the gulf between the ideal of love and its flawed, disenchanted reality. His Lola is merely a passive blank onto which men project their fantasies; her final destiny, as a circus sideshow attraction selling kisses for a dollar, reduces her profession to its most brutal logic. The Sins of Lola Montes, a classic film maudit, was butchered by its distributors and long available only in a truncated version, but a recent restoration allows us to appreciate Ophüls’s swan song in its full poignant splendor. PK

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1950s




FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956)

U.S. (MGM) 98m Eastmancolor

Director: Fred M. Wilcox

Producer: Nicholas Nayfack

Screenplay: Irving Block, Allen Adler, Cyril Hume

Photography: George J. Folsey

Music: Bebe Barron, Louis Barron

Cast: Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis, Leslie Nielsen, Robby the Robot, Warren Stevens, Jack Kelly, Richard Anderson, Earl Holliman, George Wallace, Robert Dix, Jimmy Thompson, James Drury, Harry Harvey Jr., Roger McGee, Peter Miller

Oscar nomination: A. Arnold Gillespie, Irving G. Ries, Wesley C. Miller (special effects)

This superior 1950s sci-fi gem by director Fred M. Wilcox, ambitiously shot in widescreen CinemaScope, owes nothing to the period’s paranoid McCarthyite preoccupation with hostile invaders from outer space but a great deal to the plot of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the sophisticated psychological premise that the most dangerous monsters are those lurking in the primitive impulses of the subconscious mind.

A mission led by Commander John J. Adams (Leslie Nielsen) to the planet Altair 4, to discover what became of an expedition from Earth of whom nothing has been heard for decades, finds the only survivors of the colony are brilliant, arrogant scientist Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his seductively miniskirted, child-of-nature daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), attended by one of the best-loved metallic characters of the screen, versatile and obliging Robby the Robot. Doctor Morbius has found the awesome remains of the ancient, annihilated Krell civilization, and dabbling with its technological wonders brings destruction down upon them all. Outstanding effects (including the unleashed “monsters from the id”), the awesome Krell underground complex, and an eerie, groundbreaking score of electronic tones are among the treats in a much-referenced picture that inspired many later speculative fictions of technology running away with its users. AE

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1950s




BIRUMA NO TATEGOTO (1956)

THE BURMESE HARP

Japan (Nikkatsu) 116m BW

Language: Japanese

Director: Kon Ichikawa

Producer: Masayuki Takaki

Screenplay: Natto Wada, from novel by Michio Takeyama

Photography: Minoru Yokoyama

Music: Akira Ifukube

Cast: Rentaro Mikuni, Shôji Yasui, Jun Hamamura, Taketoshi Naitô, Ko Nishimura, Hiroshi Tsuchikata, Sanpei Mine, Yoshiaki Kato, Sojiro Amano, Yôji Nagahama, Eiji Nakamura, Shojiro Ogasawara, Tomoko Tonai, Tatsuya Mihashi, Yunosuke Ito

Oscar nomination: Japan (best foreign language film)

Venice Film Festival: Kon Ichikawa (OCIC award—honorable mention, Golden Lion nomination)

Although Akira Kurosawa may be the most famous Japanese filmmaker in the West, his contemporary Kon Ichikawa has displayed equal artistry in literally dozens of films, among them The Burmese Harp, his elegy for lost innocence. Opening at the end of World War II, Captain Inouye (Rentaro Mikuni) leads his platoon into Burma with a healthy mix of discipline and musical instruction. Having trained his soldiers to fight, but also to sing, they are an odd assortment of conscripts who eventually collide with Armistice Day.

Held in a British internment camp awaiting repatriation, they hear rumors about an isolated group of Japanese refusing to surrender. As Inouye’s harp player and the center of his platoon’s spiritual life, Mizushima (Shôji Yasui) volunteers to talk down the soldiers rather than let them die in an artillery barrage. Unimpressed with his entreaties, the entrenched force is killed and Mizushima assumed lost but for the rumors his platoon clings to about his survival.

What follows is a touching journey as Mizushima awakens from the attack, injured and afraid. Aided by peasants, he begins making his way back to Inouye but gradually realizes a higher purpose. Garbed as a Buddhist monk he sets about burying the war dead strewn across Southeast Asia without funerary attention or final messages home. He recognizes the need to mourn, but also how the peace will be based on mutual care and personal loyalty, and so forsakes his old life to walk the earth bringing small labors to bear where they’re needed. He subsequently crosses paths with Inouye on several occasions but finally explains his cause as a lasting tribute to the dead, both innocent and guilty, good and evil, because it’s upon their backs the future will rise.

A breath of warm sentiment inserted over a macabre scenario, The Burmese Harp retains every bit of dignity associated with gentility and kindness. Burma itself becomes a passive supporting character but the idea of a spiritual renewal, presented without dogma or propagandistic impulses, proves a likable epilogue to the horrors of World War II in this, Ichikawa’s early masterpiece. GC-Q

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1950s




THE SEARCHERS (1956)

U.S. (Whitney, Warner Bros.) 120m Technicolor

Director: John Ford

Producer: Merian C. Cooper, Patrick Ford, C.V. Whitney

Screenplay: Frank S. Nugent, from novel by Alan Le May

Photography: Winton C. Hoch

Music: Stan Jones, Max Steiner

Cast: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Henry Brandon, Ken Curtis, Harry Carey Jr., Antonio Moreno, Hank Worden, Beulah Archuletta, Walter Coy, Dorothy Jordan

Steven jay schneider

The Searchers opens on a shot of a desert landscape seen from inside a house. Someone is approaching on horseback. It is Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), returned from the Civil War to his brother’s ranch in Texas. From a series of looks and gestures we realize that Ethan is in love with his brother’s wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan). Next day he departs with a party of Texas Rangers in pursuit of Indians who have stolen some cattle. While he’s away Comanches attack the ranch, killing Ethan’s brother and sister-in-law and capturing their two daughters. For the remainder of the film, in actions set over a period of five years, Ethan and his part-Indian companion Martin (Jeffrey Hunter) crisscross the West in search of the girls.

How did John Ford turn this simple story into one of the greatest of all Westerns? First, there’s the setting. Ford shot many Westerns in Monument Valley, an isolated region on the border between Utah and Arizona. The eroded red sandstone rocks are an awesome spectacle, and Ford’s unerring eye for composition invests them with a special aura. The sheer size of the landscape makes the human figures seem especially vulnerable, and the life of the Texan settlers precarious. How could anyone scratch a living in such a barren wilderness?

At the heart of the story, though, is the figure of Ethan Edwards. As played by Wayne, Ethan is a colossus, overwhelming and indomitable. But he has a tragic flaw. Ethan is eaten up with hatred of the Indians, and it becomes clear that his quest is driven by an implacable racism. His intention, as Martin discerns, is not to rescue Debbie (Natalie Wood), his surviving niece, but to murder her. In Ethan’s view she has become irredeemably contaminated through contact with her Comanche captors. Slowly we realize that the Comanche chief Scar (Henry Brandon) functions as a kind of mirror image of Ethan. In raping Martha before he kills her, Scar has performed a horrific travesty of the act that Ethan secretly dreamed of committing. Ethan’s urge to kill both Scar and Debbie thus arises from his need to obliterate his own illegitimate desires.

The true genius of The Searchers is in its being able to keep the audience’s sympathy for Ethan, despite the evident fact that he is a murderous racist. In doing so, it elicits a far more complex and productive response than that of more obviously liberal films in this vein, such as Broken Arrow (1950). Instead of preaching a message, Ford leads us into the complexities of the American experience of racial difference.

Along the way there are many other pleasures, including a marvelous score by Max Steiner and plenty of comedy from stalwarts of the John Ford Stock Company such as Harry Carey Jr., Ken Curtis, Hank Worden, and Ward Bond. Vera Miles is excellent as Marty’s girlfriend Laurie, whose mother is played by Olive Carey, widow of Ford’s first Western star, Harry Carey.

In 1992, The Searchers was voted the fifth greatest movie of all time in a poll of international film critics held by Sight & Sound magazine. That’s quite an accolade, but Ford’s picture lives up to it. EB

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1950s




UN CONDAMNÉ À MORT S’EST ÉCHAPPÉ OU LE VENT SOUFFLE OÙ IL VEUT (1956)

A MAN ESCAPED

France (Gaumont, Nouvelles Éditions) 99m BW

Language: French

Director: Robert Bresson

Producer: Alain Poiré, Jean Thuillier

Screenplay: Robert Bresson, from memoir by André Devigny

Photography: Léonce-Henri Burel

Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Cast: François Leterrier, Charles Le Clainche, Maurice Beerblock, Roland Monod, Jacques Ertaud, Jean Paul Delhumeau, Roger Treherne, Jean Philippe Delamarre, César Gattegno, Jacques Oerlemans, Klaus Detlef Grevenhorst, Leonhard Schmidt

Cannes Film Festival: Robert Bresson (director)

If anyone needs to be won over to the joys and rewards of minimalism in cinema, A Man Escaped is the best place to start. Much of it shows Fontaine (François Leterrier) alone in his cell, making contact with fellow prisoners and slowly chipping his way to freedom.

Like all Bresson’s films, this one illustrates his long-developed theories of the “cinematograph”: nonprofessionals giving strictly de-dramatized performances; enormous emphasis on off-screen sound and the information it carries; music held off until a final, glorious moment. And like the other great prison films of French cinema, Jacques Becker’s The Hole (1960) and Jean Genet’s A Song of Love (1950), A Man Escaped offers a remarkably potent allegory of human suffering and the drive to liberation. At the same time, it delivers an attenuated, taut form of suspense to rival the best of Alfred Hitchcock.

For many years, A Man Escaped was appreciated for its existential and spiritual dimensions: man’s solitude, the fragility of communication with others, the gift of God’s grace. More recently, its political dimension has been foregrounded, as a reflection of Bresson’s experience in the Resistance—thus giving his entire career, with its themes of subjection and “souls in torment,” a socially grounded urgency. AM

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1950s




WRITTEN ON THE WIND (1956)

U.S. (Universal) 99m Technicolor

Director: Douglas Sirk

Producer: Albert Zugsmith

Screenplay: George Zuckerman, from novel by Robert Wilder

Photography: Russell Metty

Music: Frank Skinner, Victor Young

Cast: Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, Dorothy Malone, Robert Keith, Grant Williams, Robert J. Wilke, Edward Platt, Harry Shannon, John Larch, Joseph Granby, Roy Glenn, Sam, Maidie Norman, William Schallert, Joanne Jordan

Oscar: Dorothy Malone (actress in support role)

Oscar nominations: Robert Stack (actor in support role), Victor Young, Sammy Cahn (song)

Robert Stack, in a drunken rage, smashes a bottle of booze against the wall. Lauren Bacall, at her bedroom curtain, faints. Gunshots, death, tears. And on the soundtrack, a male chorus begins singing: “Our night of stolen bliss was written on the wind.” From its first moments, this is the Hollywood melodrama that contains all others, in an electric, condensed, powerfully lyrical fashion.

Written on the Wind is about the twisted, fatal connections between sex, power, and money. Characters are arranged into inverted mirror images of each other, good facing evil—but everyone, ultimately, inhabits a complex, contradictory position in the impossible scheme of things. Dorothy Malone, marvelous as the quintessential bad girl who drinks, smokes, loves jazz, picks up guys at oil derricks, and sends her father plummeting down the stairs, is particularly riveting.

Few films are at once as visceral and insightful as Written on the Wind—a soap opera with passion, seriousness, and intelligence. Director Douglas Sirk specialized in films that were once dismissed by highbrows and lowbrows alike as “women’s weepies.” When they were finally rediscovered in the early 1970s at film festivals around the world, the audaciousness and true subversiveness of his work were appreciated for the first time. AM

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1950s




THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1956)

U.S. (Paramount) 120m Technicolor

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Producer: Herbert Coleman

Screenplay: Charles Bennett, D.B. Wyndham-Lewis, John Michael Hayes

Photography: Robert Burks

Music: Bernard Herrmann

Cast: James Stewart, Doris Day, Brenda De Banzie, Bernard Miles, Ralph Truman, Daniel Gélin, Mogens Wieth, Alan Mowbray, Hillary Brooke, Christopher Olsen, Reggie Nalder, Richard Wattis, Noel Willman, Alix Talton, Yves Brainville

Oscar: Jay Livingston, Ray Evans (song)

Hitchcock’s only remake of one of his own films raises the issue of the superiority of his American work to his British productions. Though the original 1934 version is witty, the remake is more lavish and expert, with some of Hitchcock’s most powerful scenes. James Stewart plays an American doctor on holiday in Morocco with his family who accidentally learns of a political assassination to take place in the near future. A friendly English couple are in fact spies in on the plot, and they kidnap Stewart’s son to ensure his silence. So he must prevent the killing without putting his son in harm’s way.

As in most Hitchcock films, the international intrigue is less important than the odyssey of the hero. Stewart indeed “knows too much,” not valuing his wife’s (Doris Day) capabilities. As the plot unfolds, however, her assistance proves essential, despite his fears of her emotional collapse (he even drugs her before telling her of the kidnapping). The film climaxes in London’s Royal Albert Hall, one of Hitchcock’s best-ever set pieces. The Man Who Knew Too Much features excellent performances by Stewart and Day, and by Bernard Miles and Brenda De Banzie as the British agents. The score by Bernard Herrmann, who appears in the film directing the orchestra, is one of his best. BP

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1950s




GIANT (1956)

U.S. (Giant, Warner Bros) 197m Warnercolor

Language: English / Spanish

Director: George Stevens

Producer: Henry Ginsberg, George Stevens

Screenplay: Fred Guiol, Ivan Moffat, from novel by Edna Ferber

Photography: William C. Mellor

Music: Dimitri Tiomkin

Cast: Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Carroll Baker, Jane Withers, Chill Wills, Mercedes McCambridge, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo, Rod Taylor, Judith Evelyn, Earl Holliman, Robert Nichols, Paul Fix

Oscar: George Stevens (director)

Oscar nominations: George Stevens, Henry Ginsberg (best picture), Fred Guiol, Ivan Moffat (screenplay), James Dean (actor), Rock Hudson (actor), Mercedes McCambridge (actress in support role), Boris Leven, Ralph S. Hurst (art direction), Moss Mabry, Marjorie Best (costume), William Hornbeck, Philip W. Anderson, Fred Bohanan (editing), Dimitri Tiomkin (music)

Edna Ferber specialized in writing sprawling family sagas, several of them set in the West. Her 1930 novel Cimarron was twice filmed by Hollywood, as was the 1926 film Show Boat, set in the Deep South. In Giant, written in 1950, Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) is a Texas cattle baron who marries a spirited Maryland belle, Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor). Bick’s sister has left some of the property to Jett Rink (James Dean), a former employee. Rink discovers oil and becomes immensely rich, but his personal life is a disappointment (he carries a torch for Leslie) and he declines into alcoholism. As Bick and Leslie grow older, they are concerned with who will run the ranch after they’ve gone. Their daughter (Carroll Baker) wants to take over, but Leslie doesn’t approve. To Bick’s disappointment, their son (Dennis Hopper) has married a Latina woman and become a doctor. Eventually Bick and Leslie come to terms with life.

At well over three hours, Giant certainly lives up to its title. But the performances are outstanding, not least James Dean’s, who was tragically killed in a car crash shortly after completing his part. Director George Stevens does justice to the immensity of the Texas landscape, and, unusually for the time, the film deals interestingly with both racial and class differences. EB

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1950s




ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS (1956)

U.S. (Universal) 89m Technicolor

Director: Douglas Sirk

Producer: Ross Hunter

Screenplay: Peg Fenwick, Edna L. Lee, Harry Lee, from story by Edna L. Lee

Photography: Russell Metty

Music: Frank Skinner

Cast: Jane Wyman, Rock Hudson, Agnes Moorehead, Conrad Nagel, Virginia Grey, Gloria Talbott, William Reynolds, Charles Drake, Hayden Rorke, Jacqueline deWit, Leigh Snowden, Donald Curtis, Alex Gerry, Nestor Paiva, Forrest Lewis

Steven jay schneider

On one level, Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows is like a fabulous, ironic piece of performance art, the relic of a specifically mid-twentieth-century genre that degenerated into television soap opera. But the core emotional experiences of the film’s distant lives are timelessly compelling. This is arguably the finest example of the plush 1950s Technicolor melodramas, and the most classic one made at Universal by Danish-born Sirk (formerly Detlef Sierck), a leftist theater-director-turned-filmmaker of some stature who fled with his Jewish wife from Nazi Germany to Hollywood. Back to square one as an unknown émigré, he applied distinctive taste to seemingly undemanding and trite assignments. His European sophistication and formal visual style elevated absurd and maudlin stories into deliriously entertaining heightened reality and multiple-hanky domestic dramas, including Magnificent Obsession (1954), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1958), and Imitation of Life (1959).

In All That Heaven Allows, pleasant middle-class widow Cary Scott (Jane Wyman), suffering estrangement from her selfish grown children and facing social ostracism from her shallow country club set, falls in love with the much younger gardener and nurseryman Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson)—Hudson was a favorite of Sirk’s and also appears as Wyman’s leading man in Magnificent Obsession. Her distant son Ned (William Reynolds) is preoccupied with his career and spoiled college-girl daughter Kay (Gloria Talbott) is embarrassed her mother is a woman with needs. Their idea of a great gift to fill mom’s time is a TV set. Love wins out, but only after being tested by cruel gossip, tearful sacrificial separation, and a life-threatening crisis. These are all traditional staples of vintage women’s pictures, but Sirk presents them with an eye for darker impulses beneath the sunny suburban wholesomeness idealized in 1950s America, and with a subtle handling of its repressed insecurities.

Along with Imitation of Life, All That Heaven Allows was a touchstone for Todd Haynes’s bold, sumptuous homage melodrama Far From Heaven (2002). It also provided the source of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s racially charged reworking further down the socioeconomic scale. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) features a poor German widow who is exposed to prejudice and derision when she falls in love with the much younger Ali, a kind, equally lonely North African immigrant. Costume design from All That Heaven Allows even found its way into the period homage French farce Eight Women (2002), with Catherine Deneuve’s daughter arriving home for the holidays in a replica of Gloria Talbott’s beanie hat and ensemble.

Hunky Hudson, who did much of his best work with Sirk, is perfectly sincere as the rugged but sensitive young outdoorsman in whom Wyman’s soulful homemaker finds liberating warmth and empathy. The picture looks good enough to eat, with wonderful color, compositions, lighting, art direction, costumes, and cinematography. But the style serves the content superbly, observation of human nature with high gloss making heavenly romantic melodrama. AE

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1950s




INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS (1956)

U.S. (Allied Artists, Walter Wanger) 80m BW

Director: Don Siegel

Producer: Walter Wanger

Screenplay: Daniel Mainwaring, from the novel The Body Snatchers by Jack Finney

Photography: Ellsworth Fredericks

Music: Carmen Dragon

Cast: Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan, Carolyn Jones, Jean Willes, Ralph Dumke, Virginia Christine, Tom Fadden, Kenneth Patterson, Guy Way, Eileen Stevens, Beatrice Maude, Jean Andren, Bobby Clark

Steven jay schneider

One of the most popular and paranoid films from the golden age of American science-fiction cinema, Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers simultaneously stands as ambiguous/ambivalent Cold War allegory and extraterrestrial terror tale.

Despite its B-movie feel, Siegel’s film—based on the novel by Jack Finney—is less concerned with subscribing to generic sci-fi convention than with dramatizing the dangers of social conformity and the threat of invasion coming both from outside and inside one’s own community. But the absence of any manifest monsters—partly due to economic considerations, the theme of “body snatching” plants and doppelganger drones served as a creative cost-cutting tactic—is more than made up for by the uncanny depiction of “ordinary life” that may no longer be so ordinary. As critic Kim Newman writes, “Rather than rubbery claws, animated dinosaurs and alien death rays, the film finds horror in an uncle mowing the lawn, an abandoned roadside vegetable stall, a bar all but empty of patrons, a mother putting a plant in baby’s playpen, or a crowd purposefully gathering in a town square at 7:45 on a Saturday morning.”

When Dr. Miles Bennell (Kevin McCarthy) returns home to his small California town of Santa Mira from a medical convention, he is confronted by strange reports from several of his patients, who insist that their seemingly benign relatives are in fact imposters. After some initial skepticism, Miles is convinced when, during a barbecue with some friends, he discovers two huge seed pods that burst open to release a bubbly fluid and two incomplete human replicas, one of which is well on its way to looking just like Miles himself. Speculating that a bizarre alien invasion is underway, Miles and his love interest Becky (Dana Wynter) attempt a getaway as the entire town falls sway to the pods’ dehumanizing effects.

A cinematic nightmare concerning the potential communist threat or an anti-McCarthyist “message” movie wrapped in the protective garb of sci-fi fantasy? Invasion of the Body Snatchers offers evidence to support either interpretation. And the film’s open, pessimistic ending, as Miles wanders onto a highway and shouts, “You’re next!” directly to the camera, will make you wonder who you’re really sleeping next to at night. SJS

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1950s




THE WRONG MAN (1956)

U.S. (First National, Warner Bros.) 105m BW

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Producer: Herbert Coleman, Alfred Hitchcock

Screenplay: Angus MacPhail, Maxwell Anderson, the from the novel The True Story of Christopher Emmanuel Balestrero by Maxwell Anderson

Photography: Robert Burks

Music: Bernard Herrmann

Cast: Henry Fonda, Vera Miles, Anthony Quayle, Harold Stone, John Heldabrand, Doreen Lang, Norma Connolly, Lola D’Annunzio, Robert Essen, Dayton Lummis, Charles Cooper, Esther Minciotti, Laurinda Barrett, Nehemiah Persoff, Kippy Campbell

The Wrong Man is one of the bleakest pictures Hitchcock ever made. Henry Fonda plays Manny Balestrero, a jazz musician who is mistakenly identified as the man who held up an insurance office. Although he’s released on bail, the worry and disgrace begin to affect his wife Rose (Vera Miles). They try to find the people who can confirm Manny’s alibi, but they fail. Rose has a breakdown before the trial and is confined to an asylum. Eventually, quite by chance, the real hold-up man is discovered, but this has little effect on her state of mind.

Shot in black and white, with an almost documentary-style realism, The Wrong Man is based on an actual case, as stated by Hitchcock himself in a short prologue. It explores one of Hitchcock’s perennial themes, that of the man accused of a crime he did not commit (Hitchcock’s 1959 film North By Northwest has a similar situation). The director brilliantly conveys how readily the procedures of indictment and incarceration conspire to impart a sensation of guilt even in the innocent. In a masterly sequence making use of a subjective camera, we see Manny suffer the humiliation of being booked, searched, and fingerprinted, the dirty ink on his hands seeming like a confirmation of his guilt. EB

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1950s




BIGGER THAN LIFE (1956)

U.S. (Fox) 95m DeLuxe

Director: Nicholas Ray

Producer: James Mason

Screenplay: Cyril Hume, Richard Maibaum, from article by Burton Roueche

Photography: Joseph MacDonald

Music: David Raksin

Cast: James Mason, Barbara Rush, Walter Matthau, Robert F. Simon, Christopher Olsen, Roland Winters, Rusty Lane, Rachel Stephens, Kipp Hamilton

Venice Film Festival nomination: Nicholas Ray (Golden Lion)

The very finest of Nicholas Ray’s films is a brilliant expressionist melodrama that used the then-topical controversy over the discovery and deployment of the “wonder-drug” cortisone (a type of steroid) to mount a devastating critique on the materialistic, middle-class conformism that defined the American dream during the postwar era.

The brooding James Mason (who also produced) is perfectly cast as a smalltown teacher beset by worries about money and middle age who, having been prescribed steroids, becomes addicted to the sense of well-being it brings. This turns him into an irascibly neurotic, megalomaniac tyrant to his wife, son, and everyone around him. The drug, of course, is merely the catalyst that ignites the loathing he feels for himself and the staid, complacently unquestioning world in which he is trapped. Indeed, his despair goes so deep that when, finally, he decides he must save his son from the depravities of humanity by killing him, and his wife (Barbara Rush) reminds him that God stopped Abraham from killing Isaac, Mason simply responds: “God was wrong.”

A profoundly radical Hollywood movie, then, distinguished not only by its distaste for suburban notions of “normality” but by the beautifully nightmarish clarity of its intensely colored CinemaScope imagery. A masterpiece. GA

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1950s




HIGH SOCIETY (1956)

U.S. (Bing Crosby, MGM, Sol C. Siegel) 107m Technicolor

Director: Charles Walters

Producer: Sol C. Siegel

Screenplay: John Patrick, from the play The Philadelphia Story by Philip Barry

Photography: Paul Vogel

Music: Saul Chaplin, Cole Porter

Cast: Bing Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Celeste Holm, John Lund, Louis Calhern, Sidney Blackmer, Louis Armstrong, Margalo Gillmore

Oscar nominations: Edward Bernds, Elwood Ullman (screenplay)*, Johnny Green, Saul Chaplin (music), Cole Porter (song)

* nomination declined when the Academy realized it had confused Bernds and Ullman’s High Society with Sol Siegel’s production

A musical update of George Cukor’s upper-class romantic farce The Philadelphia Story (1940), High Society unites the unbeatable melodic talents of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Louis Armstrong with the beauty of Grace Kelly in her final film role before she left Hollywood to become Princess Grace of Monaco.

Icy, spoiled Tracy (Kelly) is due to marry dull, dependable beau George (John Lund), but on the eve of her nuptials, her ex-husband Dexter (Crosby) returns to try and put a stop to the wedding. On hand to report on the shenanigans behind the social event of the year are journalists Liz (Celeste Holm) and Mike (Sinatra), with jazz-great Armstrong (appearing as himself) providing something of a Greek chorus, bringing the audience up to speed with Dexter and Tracy’s complicated entanglements.

Following endless Hollywood musicals of the 1940s and early 1950s that were packed with elaborate song and dance numbers, director Charles Walters seamlessly fits nine simple renditions of Cole Porter songs into the proceedings, rather than have them take over the film. Armstrong begins by singing the plot-explaining “High Society” from the back of a cramped limousine shared with his band, while the classic “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?” is spiritedly sung by Sinatra and Holm alone in a room filled with Tracy’s many extravagant wedding gifts. A light, frothy, and timeless piece of musical comedy. JB

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1950s




THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956)

U.S. (Cecil B. DeMille, Paramount) 220m Technicolor

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Producer: Cecil B. DeMille, Henry Wilcoxon

Screenplay: Aeneas MacKenzie, Jesse Lasky Jr., Jack Gariss, Fredric M. Frank, From the novels Pillar of Fire by J.H. Ingraham, On Eagle’s Wing by A.E. Southon, and Prince of Egypt by Dorothy Clarke Wilson

Photography: Loyal Griggs

Music: Elmer Bernstein

Cast: Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner, Anne Baxter, Edward G. Robinson, Yvonne De Carlo, Debra Paget, John Derek, Cedric Hardwicke, Nina Foch

Oscar: John P. Fulton (special effects)

Oscar nominations: Cecil B. DeMille (best picture), Hal Pereira, Walter H. Tyler, Albert Nozaki, Sam Comer, Ray Moyer (art direction), Loyal Griggs (photography), Edith Head, Ralph Jester, John Jensen, Dorothy Jeakins, Arnold Friberg (costume), Anne Bauchens (editing), Loren L. Ryder (sound recording)

With a running time of nearly four hours, Cecil B. De Mille’s last feature and most extravagant blockbuster is full of absurdities and vulgarities, but the color is ravishing, and De Mille’s form of showmanship, which includes his own narration, never falters. Charlton Heston might be said to achieve his apotheosis as Moses—unless one decides that it’s Moses who’s achieving his apotheosis as Heston—and most of the others in the cast are comparably mythic.

Simultaneously ludicrous and splendid, this epic is driven by the sort of personal conviction one almost never finds in subsequent Hollywood monoliths. To read it properly, one has to see it as an ideological, spiritual manifesto relating specifically to how De Mille viewed the Cold War world in 1956. Thus, when he appears in front of a gold-tasseled curtain to introduce the film, his main point isn’t simply his use of ancient sources such as Philo and Josephus to recount the thirty years of Moses’s life omitted in the Bible, but also to declare that “The theme of this picture is whether man should be ruled by God’s laws or . . . by the whims of a dictator like Ramses.” By “dictator,” he’s clearly thinking of a Mao Tse-tung figure, which the orientalism suggested by Yul Brynner as Ramses makes clear.

The film has sometimes been rereleased in a stretched, anamorphic widescreen format, which means that the top and bottom of every frame is cropped. There may be some form of divine retribution at work here; De Mille was a notorious foot fetishist, and thanks to this studio trick, many of De Mille’s foreground players have now been deprived of their feet. JRos

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1950s




12 ANGRY MEN (1957)

U.S. (Orion-Nova) 96m BW

Director: Sidney Lumet

Producer: Henry Fonda, Reginald Rose

Screenplay: Reginald Rose

Photography: Boris Kaufman

Music: Kenyon Hopkins

Cast: Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, Ed Begley, E.G. Marshall, Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, John Fiedler, Jack Klugman, Ed Binns, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec, Robert Webber

Oscar nominations: Henry Fonda, Reginald Rose (best picture), Sidney Lumet (director), Reginald Rose (screenplay)

Berlin International Film Festival: Sidney Lumet (Golden Bear, OCIC award)

Steven jay schneider

Sidney Lumet’s courtroom drama enjoys enduring popularity because it is a hothouse for smart performances, sudden twists, and impassioned monologues. Uniquely, the brilliantly economical and riveting drama of 12 Angry Men does not actually take place in the courtroom—except for a brief prologue as the jury is sent out with the judge’s instructions—but during a single, sweltering afternoon in the jury room.

Henry Fonda plays Juror Number 8, the holdout whose reasonable doubt and well-reasoned resistance gradually bring eleven other jury members around from their first swift verdict of guilty in the case of a youth prosecuted for the murder of his father. Fonda was impressed by the power in Reginald Rose’s ingeniously contrived teleplay, broadcast live on CBS in 1954 (and believed lost until 2003, when a tape was discovered). Recognizing a role that perfectly suited his calm sincerity and seeing the opportunity for a gripping feature, he put his own money into producing the film. He gave the assignment to Lumet, a dynamic veteran of live TV drama whose expertise enabled him and director of photography Boris Kaufman—another expert at working in restricted spaces and in black and white—to mine the mounting tension from Rose’s tightly structured script and to wrap the film in under twenty days.

Lumet’s much-loved, engrossing debut film makes no apologies for its theatricality but makes a virtue of its claustrophobic, sweaty intensity. And each actor makes his mark in this showcase of superb characterizations and ensemble dynamics, from Martin Balsam’s insecure foreman to a leonine Lee J. Cobb’s belligerent, embittered Juror No. 3. Interestingly, two of the men, Joseph Sweeney as elderly, insightful Juror No. 9 and George Voskovic as methodically minded Juror No. 11, had been in the original television production. Class and ethnic prejudices, private assumptions, and personalities all come out in a colossal struggle for unclouded judgment. The film won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, but its greatest accolade is that after seeing this picture no one ever enters into jury duty without fantasizing about becoming a dogged champion of justice à la Fonda, whatever the case at hand. AE

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1950s




DET SJUNDE INSEGLET (1957)

THE SEVENTH SEAL

Sweden (Svensk) 96m BW

Language: Swedish

Director: Ingmar Bergman

Producer: Allan Ekelund

Screenplay: Ingmar Bergman, from the play Trämålning by Ingmar Bergman

Photography: