Monday, January 28, 2008

Target #182: The Apartment (1960, Billy Wilder)

TSPDT placing: #67
Directed by: Billy Wilder
Written by: Billy Wilder, I.A.L. Diamond
Starring: Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Fred MacMurray, Ray Walston, Jack Kruschen, David Lewis, Hope Holiday

If I ever had any doubts that Billy Wilder was one of Hollywood's all-time greatest directors, you may now consider me totally convinced. My ninth film from Wilder is among his very best, a sophisticated, sensitive and cynical comedy/drama/romance that satirises and critiques corporate big business and America's fading moral standards. Jack Lemmon, following the success of the director's previous film –the hilarious cross-dressing farce Some Like It Hot (1959) – here proves his worth as a dramatic actor, bringing to the character of C. C. Baxter the charm and sincerity of an average, working-class American employee, trying to making an honest living from his powerless position as an office clerk at a large, impersonal insurance firm. In a society where power leads to corruption, Baxter finds his own steadfast morals beginning to slide, having agreed to loan out his apartment to higher-ranked business executives for the purposes of their underhanded extra-martial affairs. It is an act through which Baxter hopes to climb the corporate ladder, though he is simultaneously disgusted by the moral implications of his actions; lending out his apartment is the business equivalent of prostitution, and he recognises that he is merely being exploited in a manner than harms his moral integrity.

The Apartment (1960) was written by Billy Wilder and regular-collaborator I.A.L. Diamond, and is every bit as intelligent, witty and classy as the likes of Sunset Blvd. (1950) and Double Indemnity (1944). Though certainly not as laugh-out-loud hilarious as Some Like It Hot, the film dispenses comedy, romance and drama in such perfectly-portioned satchels that only a master could have helmed the production. Cinematographer Joseph LaShelle shot the film in crisp black-and-white, subduing the otherwise festive atmosphere of the Christmas-time setting and creating an air of bittersweet melancholy, the sort of sensation one feels when left alone with a joyful celebration – its sounds muffled by the adjoining walls – taking place in the next room. The Apartment is also a meditation on loneliness. Though Baxter has developed an unearned reputation as something of a "party animal" {allowing for some amusing confrontations with his neighbour, Dr. Dreyfuss (Jack Kruschen)}, he is very much a solitary figure, disheartened by the general slackening of society's moral standards and left wondering why nice guys always finish last.
Of course, I couldn't review The Apartment without also mentioning the performances of Shirley MacLaine and Fred MacMurray, who help form the film's pivotal romantic triangle. MacLaine's Fran Kubelik, one of the building's elevator operators, is bright and independent in most respects, but has found herself romantically exploited by the insurance firm's director, Jeff D. Sheldrake (MacMurray), who has promised her a steady future but refuses to divorce his current wife. MacLaine brings a beautifully-balanced combination of intelligence and vulnerability to the role, at first appearing to be a carefree, upright young lady before slowly revealing vital flaws in her character. MacMurray, who I'd previously enjoyed as Walter Neff in Wilder's definitive film-noir, brings just the right amount of smug condescension to his interactions with Baxter, and his character's attempts at earnestness are immediately transparent as acts of unashamed manipulation. At the 1961 Academy Awards, voters were obviously impressed with the film's ability to tell a great story without the usual syrupy hijinks, and The Apartment took away a deserved five Oscars, including Best Writing, Best Director and Best Picture – the final black-and-white film to do so before Steven Spielberg's Holocaust epic, Schindler's List (1993).


Currently my #2 film of 1960:
1) Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock)
2) The Apartment (Billy Wilder)
3) Peeping Tom (Michael Powell)

Currently my #2 film from director Billy Wilder:
1) Double Indemnity (1944)
2) The Apartment (1960)
3) Sunset Blvd. (1950)
4) Some Like It Hot (1959)
5) Five Graves to Cairo (1943)
6) The Lost Weekend (1945)
7) Witness for the Prosecution (1957)
8) The Front Page (1974)
9) The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970)


Sunday, January 27, 2008

Target #181: Rashômon (1950, Akira Kurosawa)

TSPDT placing: #19
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
Written by: Ryunosuke Akutagawa (stories), Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto (writers)
Starring: Toshirô Mifune, Machiko Kyô, Masayuki Mori, Takashi Shimura, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Fumiko Honma, Daisuke Katô

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

Akira Kurosawa is unquestionably the most recognised film-making talent ever to emerge from Japan, his string of reputed masterpieces including The Seven Samurai (1954), Yojimbo (1961) and Ran (1985), each of which I have yet to enjoy, my experience with Asian cinema worryingly limited. After recently enjoying my first Kurosawa picture, the powerful but slightly-overlong Nora inu / Stray Dog (1949), I was keen to watch another, though I couldn't yet find the time to commit myself to one of the director's three-hour-long epics. Rashômon (1950) proved the perfect alternative. Kurosawa's film, the first to bring him into the international limelight, uses a simple story – of a husband's death in the woods – to reveal a simple but worryingly-accurate truth of human existence: that the truth itself is unknowable. The unique narrative structure of the film, of replaying the same event four times from differing perspectives, had the potential to become nothing more than a curious gimmick, yet Kurosawa makes it all work wonderfully, aided by the exquisite cinematography of Kazuo Miyagawa and electric performances from all involved, most particularly Kurosawa-regular Toshirô Mifune.

The film opens in a bleak, bitter rainstorm – one of those mighty skyward torrents that makes us drought-stricken Australians green with envy – where three men are sheltering in the ruins of a gatehouse. Three days previously, the oldest of the three, Woodcutter (Takashi Shimura), discovered the body of a man in the woods, and has recently returned from a police inquiry. The coarse, unkempt Commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) demands to hear the remainder of the Woodcutter's story, and so he recounts three "versions" of the shocking rape/murder, told from the perspective of the Bandit (Toshirô Mifune), the husband (Masayuki Mori) and the wife (Machiko Kyô), each story differing substantially from the other two. The existence of subjectivity, it seems, has permanently obscured any chances of ever knowing the absolute "truth" of the incident, with each perspective – perhaps deliberately, perhaps subconsciously – distorting the truth to conform to their own interests. It is revealed that even the seemingly-passive observer, Woodcutter, has his own reasons for adjusting the facts, this final revelation almost permanently denting the honest Priest's (Minoru Chiaki) belief in the goodness of Mankind.
After portraying a modest, tentative rookie detective in Kurosawa's Stray Dog, Toshirô Mifune is an absolute revelation as the notorious Tajômaru. Regardless of the specific version of events, Mifune unequivocally dominates the screen, his maniacal energy and frenzied cackle certain to imprint on your mind. The basis for the film was derived from two stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, with "Rashomon" providing the setting, and "In a Grove" supplying the characters and plot. The flashback components of the story unfold under the dappled light of the trees, and, on several occasions, Miyagawa films the Sun directly through the leaves of the forest canopy, perhaps representative of the "light of truth" that is being obscured by the inherent dishonesty and selfishness in Man {personified in the selfish Commoner}. Of course, Kurosawa couldn't bring himself to end the film in such a pessimistic fashion, and the Woodcutter redeems his previous deception by offering to care for an abandoned newborn baby discovered in the gatehouse. As the rainstorm ceases, and the glorious sunlight once again begins to beam down upon the lands, the Priest finally regains his faith in the goodness to be found in a man's heart.

Currently my #3 film of 1950:
1) Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder)
2) Harvey (Henry Koster)
3) Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa)


Saturday, January 26, 2008

Target #180: The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks)

TSPDT placing: #258
Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: Raymond Chandler (novel), William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, Jules Furthman (screenplay)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, John Ridgely, Martha Vickers, Dorothy Malone, Charles Waldron, Charles D. Brown, Bob Steele, Elisha Cook Jr., Louis Jean Heydt

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

Who killed Owen Taylor, the replacement chauffeur? I don't know; Philip Marlowe doesn't know; screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman certainly don't know. Indeed, even Raymond Chandler, the author of the original novel, was once asked to explain his story's many murders, double-crossings, twists and turns, and replied that he had absolutely no idea. In any other situation, I might consider this a solid detraction from the quality of the film, but, strangely enough, here it almost acts as a positive. The Big Sleep (1946) is so doggedly obsessed with showing us the dark, seedy underbelly of human existence that any scenario, however shocking, is quite conceivable; the murderer could have been any one of the characters, and this would have been wholly consistent with the general tone of the film. The Hollywood township setting is occupied by a collection of the most morally-depraved creatures imaginable, and the murder mystery plot is so incredibly convoluted that anybody who claims to follow it all on first viewing is either a genius or a liar.

Humphrey Bogart is, of course, the definitive version of the film-noir hero, exhibiting handsomeness, toughness and always remaining in full control of the situation. Though his character is basically the same as his Sam Spade from The Maltese Falcon (1941), this was the only occasion on which Bogart portrayed Chandler's popular character Philip Marlowe {who, notably, has also been played by Dick Powell and Robert Mitchum}. Though Marlowe is allowed to entertain a variety of seductive women, via some surprisingly-scandalous double entendre dialogue, it is with future-wife Lauren Bacall that the chemistry really sizzles {the couple would be married by the time of the film's release, and would co-star in numerous subsequent pictures}. Considering I had been rather disappointed with the pair's chemistry in Key Largo (1948), it was a real pleasure to witness the sparks really flying this time, most memorably in a sexually-suggestive horse-racing dialogue sequence, which was re-shot later to capitalise on the pair's popularity following To Have and Have Not (1944).

The Big Sleep is one of the most rawly-entertaining hard-boiled detective thrillers I've seen, an indecipherable jumble of murders and low-lifes that both acknowledges its incomprehensibility and accepts it {indeed, the characters each seem as baffled as we are}. Various important characters never appear on screen, while others turn up already dead, and more still only survive long enough to divulge a vital clue. Considering the dominance of the Productive/Hays Code during the 1940s, it's surprising that much of the content of the film was allowed to remain intact. Aside from the sexual innuendo, the plot also contains veiled references to pornography, drug use and homosexuality. Perhaps the film's ultra-complicated plot also served as the picture's saving grace, with censors apparently too bewildered with the mystery to notice what was actually being implied by Bogart and his various female companions. However, the one most important question has yet to be asked: where on Earth did Howard Hawks manage to find so many good-lookin' dames?!

Currently my #2 film of 1946:
1) It’s A Wonderful Life (Frank Capra)
2) The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks)
3) Notorious (Alfred Hitchcock)


Target #179: The Searchers (1956, John Ford)

TSPDT placing: #7
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Alan Le May (novel), Frank S. Nugent (screenplay)
Starring: John Wayne, Jeffrey Hunter, Vera Miles, Ward Bond, Natalie Wood, Hank Worden, Henry Brandon, John Qualen, Olive Carey, Ken Curtis

At first glance, I almost dismissed The Searchers (1956) as being a standard-type “cowboys and Indians” adventure film, albeit a very good one. When Comanche Indians brutally murder his brother and sister-in-law, and kidnap their two daughters, heroic drifter Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) sets out in pursuit, not only to rescue his nieces but also to exact revenge on the American Indians responsible, namely a formidable leader named Scar. Shot in 35mm VistaVision, the film must surely have been a spectacle on the big screen, with cinematographer Winton C. Hoch perfectly capturing the vast expanse of the American desert, and the towering, dominant landscapes of Monument Valley, Utah {though the film is primarily set in the Llano Estacado region of Texas}. Many of the picture’s most memorable moments arise from the confrontations between the two clashing American cultures – a vulnerable family, through various subtle hints and images, sense an unseen foe circling their home; a search-party of Texan settlers suddenly find themselves surrounded by dozens of Indians on horseback. Taken just on face-value, The Searchers remains a highly-accomplished piece of filmmaking.

However, with the legendary John Ford at the helm, it’s apparent that there must be something more to the film. Indeed, I was astonished by the performance of John Wayne, who brings an incredible complexity and moral ambiguity to his character. Ethan Edwards boasts an overwhelming racial prejudice towards the Comanche Indians. Having lost his own mother to the native tribes {as can be briefly glimpsed from a seemingly-inconsequential tombstone prop}, and now the woman that he conceivably loved himself, Ethan’s prejudice is undying, and his commitment to attaining retribution unflinching. Young Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), throughout the arduous adventure, proves his most loyal companion, though, being one-eighth Cherokee, it takes the best part of five years before Ethan treats him with the respect he deserves. Though it stops short of humanising the Comanche Indians, the film makes clear the startling parallels between Ethan and Scar; our hero’s racist attitudes are not merely a product of their time, but rather Ford both acknowledges and condemns his prejudicial mind-set. Ethan remains the film’s unrivalled hero, but the audience is nonetheless offered a conflicting perspective on his morals and motivations.

Intertwined within this darkly-themed tale of obsession and prejudice is a somewhat awkwardly-placed romance between Martin and Laurie Jorgensen (Vera Miles), one that belongs in a lesser Western to this one. The selection of eccentric supporting characters, including those played by Ward Bond, Hank Worden and Ken Curtis, certainly provide some amusement for the audience, but ultimately detract from the murky themes that comprise the heart of the story, of Ethan’s endless search to retrieve his niece from the Comanches; or, otherwise, to purge her “pollution” through murder. As far as Westerns go {and, I admit, I’ve never been an avid fan of the genre}, John Ford’s The Searchers is one of the finest that I’ve seen, despite a few uneven patches. The film works equally well as both a brooding character study and an entertaining adventure, and that’s surely not a balance that could have been achieved easily. For now, I’ll maintain that my two favourite Westerns are The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and Little Big Man (1970), but I can’t wait to discover what other treats John Ford has in store for me.

Currently my #5 film of 1956:
1) Forbidden Planet (Fred M. Wilcox)
2) Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (Don Siegel)
3) The Killing (Stanley Kubrick)
4) Moby Dick (John Huston)
5) The Searchers (John Ford)


Monday, January 21, 2008

A warm welcome to "Shooting Lessons: 1000 Pictures!"

Thank you very much to everybody who is reading this introductory welcome to my film blog, an online journal in which I hope to record my exploits in completing the The Shoot Pictures, Don't They? Top 1000 films list, from the perspective of a relative newcomer to cinema.
My calculations inform me that, to date, I have only seen a paltry 178 films from the top 1000, a figure that forces me to ask why I even consider myself a film buff! Nevertheless, considering I only took an active interest in cinema nearing the end of 2006, I suppose that it's a respectable enough figure.

Though I understand that the TSPDT Top 1000 is by no means definitive, it probably gives the most accurate representation of any list that I've been able to find. At the very least, even if I'm ultimately unsuccessful in completing my goal, I will have seen a bucketload of great films in the process of failing, and I really couldn't ask for any more than that!
My primary goal in the short-term (the next six months or so) will be to complete the TSPDT Top 100, of which I've currently seen 46. The fact that I'm missing five films from the top ten alone (The Rules of the Game, The Searchers, The Seven Samurai, Tokyo Story, Sunrise) is rather embarassing to me, and so they'll be among the first to be crossed off!

Now, for the sake of interest, here are the 178 films from the list that I have already seen and (for the most part) loved:

Citizen Kane
2001: A Space Odyssey

Godfather, The
Singin' in the Rain
Battleship Potemkin
Lawrence of Arabia
Bicycle Thieves
Godfather Part II, The
Raging Bull
City Lights
Touch of Evil
Third Man, The
General, The [1926]
Some Like it Hot
Psycho [1960]
Sunset Blvd.
Gold Rush, The
Magnificent Ambersons, The
Taxi Driver
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb
Rear Window
Seventh Seal, The
Night of the Hunter, The
Apocalypse Now
It's a Wonderful Life
M [1931]
Modern Times
Wild Strawberries
Blade Runner
North by Northwest
Wizard of Oz, The
Sherlock Jr.
Aguirre: The Wrath of God
Double Indemnity
Clockwork Orange, A
Man with a Movie Camera, The
His Girl Friday
Broken Blossoms
Battle of Algiers, The
Duck Soup
King Kong [1933]
Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The
Star Wars
Grapes of Wrath, The
Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, The
Umberto D.
Annie Hall
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
Shining, The
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Chien andalou, Un
Philadelphia Story, The
Once Upon a Time in America
Jetée, La
Maltese Falcon, The
Pulp Fiction
Monsieur Verdoux
Paths of Glory
Conversation, The
Last Laugh, The
Exorcist, The
Good, the Bad and the Ugly, The
It Happened One Night
Bridge on the River Kwai, The
Schindler's List
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Rosemary's Baby
Birds, The
Graduate, The
Raiders of the Lost Ark
To Kill a Mockingbird
Peeping Tom
Great Dictator, The
Awful Truth, The
Night of the Living Dead
Strangers on a Train
All Quiet on the Western Front
Navigator, The
Manchurian Candidate, The [1962]
Five Easy Pieces
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
African Queen, The
39 Steps, The
Shadow of a Doubt
F for Fake
Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Terminator, The
Reservoir Dogs
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Empire Strikes Back, The
Top Hat
Midnight Cowboy
Night and Fog
King of Comedy, The
Hard Day's Night, A
Groundhog Day
I Know Where I'm Going!
Come and See
Silence of the Lambs, The
American Graffiti
Full Metal Jacket
Back to the Future
Invasion of the Body Snatchers [1956]
Voyage dans la lune, Le
Elephant Man, The
All the President's Men
Monty Python and the Holy Grail
Shawshank Redemption, The
Die Hard
12 Angry Men
Dog Day Afternoon
Killing, The
Barton Fink
Scarface [1932]
Scarface [1983]
Blood of a Poet, The
Forrest Gump
Lady Vanishes, The
Thing from Another World, The
Phantom Carriage, The
Dead Poets Society
Spirited Away
Blood Simple
Verdict, The [1982]
Seven Chances
French Connection, The
Day the Earth Stood Still, The
Miller's Crossing
Straw Dogs
Edward Scissorhands
Stray Dog
Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Being There
Jason and the Argonauts
Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The
Thin Man, The
Purple Rose of Cairo, The
Eyes Wide Shut
Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The
Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
Fight Club
In the Heat of the Night
Arrivée d'un train à la Ciotat, L'
Trial, The
Adventures of Prince Achmed, The
Woman of Paris, A
Broadway Danny Rose
Big Lebowski, The
Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, The
Man in the White Suit, The
Knife in the Water

That's 178 down and 822 to go. My first post and review will follow in the next few days. Wish me luck!