Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Target #195: Out of the Past (1947, Jacques Tourneur)

TSPDT placing: #125
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Daniel Mainwaring (novel and screenplay; as Geoffrey Homes), Frank Fenton (uncredited), James M. Cain (uncredited)
Starring: Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer, Kirk Douglas, Rhonda Fleming, Richard Webb, Steve Brodie, Virginia Huston, Paul Valentine, Dickie Moore, Ken Niles

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

Jacques Tourneur's Out of the Past (1947) has all the required ingredients for the archetypal film-noir: a bold and charismatic hero, wearied by a lifetime of violence and corruption, but reluctantly hauled back into his old world by a past he can't escape; a seductive femme fatale, a seemingly-innocent, pretty enchantress whose loyalty can never be counted upon; a sleazy and vengeful gambler, who's silently holding all the cards that will determine our hero's fate. Daniel Mainwaring's dark and tragic narrative {credited under the pseudonym Geoffrey Homes} combines a linear storyline with reminiscing flashbacks, the latter narrated in a tired, laconic tone of voice by Robert Mitchum {who, after frightening roles in The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Cape Fear (1962), finally convinces me that he can effectively play a hero}. Complete with bleak, shadowy cinematography by Nicholas Musuraca, and no shortage of double- and triple-crossings, Out of the Past – along with Billy Wilder's masterpiece Double Indemnity (1944) – remains one of the purest examples of the film noir style. If Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum) thought he could escape his old enemies by purchasing an old gas station in a small American town, then he was sorely mistaken. A previous employer, Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas), a seedy and sly gangster, has sent for him, and, more than likely, the meeting has something to do with Kathie (Jane Greer), the beautiful seductress with whom Bailey {back when he was called Jeff Markham} fell in love when he was supposed to be capturing her. Bailey is a smooth, shrewd operator, and recognises that plans have been drawn against him, but he responds to the situation as one whose judgement should never be doubted. The romance described early in the film, as Bailey recounts his doomed love story to local innocent girlfriend, Anne (Virginia Huston), is deceptively touching, and, despite the clear framing device around which the story is structured, I was completely fooled into sympathising with Kathie, only to be left feeling foolish and hollow as her initial betrayal is revealed.

In the United Kingdom, Tourneur's film was released under the title Build My Gallows High, also the name of the novel from which the screenplay was adapted. There are enough sharp, bitterly-ironic snippets of dialogue for me to spend all day listing them, but lines such as "Baby, I don't care," "…if I have to, I'll die last" and "you dirty double-crossing rat!" are pure noir, and serve as an excellent introduction to the style of American film-making that was most prominent from 1941-1958 {basically from John Huston's The Maltese Falcon to Orson Welles' Touch of Evil}. The story comes to a successfully downbeat conclusion, with each of the three main characters meeting a messy and tragic end in a suitably Shakespearian fashion. Though Jeff Bailey was ostensibly our story's hero, he had already committed enough sins by the film's beginning to avoid a happy ending, and his fate was effectively sealed from the moment he chose to revisit his past employer, despite obviously having little choice in the matter. Such is film noir.

Currently my #3 film of 1947:
1) The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz)
2) Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin)
3) Out of the Past (Jacques Tourner)


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Target #194: Letyat zhuravli / The Cranes are Flying (1957, Mikhail Kalatozov)

TSPDT placing: #656
Directed by: Mikhail Kalatozov
Written by: Viktor Rozov (play and screenplay)
Starring: Tatyana Samojlova, Aleksey Batalov, Vasili Merkuryev, Aleksandr Shvorin, Svetlana Kharitonova, Konstantin Nikitin, Valentin Zubkov, Antonina Bogdanova

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

The aftermath of World War Two almost resulted in the death of Soviet cinema. In the early years of the 1950s, film production came close to a complete standstill {a mere nine feature-films were released in 1951}, and the work of all filmmakers was closely monitored, and often censored, by the government. Following the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, filmmakers were given greater artistic freedom with their pictures, though many remained reluctant to challenge the heroic, optimistic and propagandistic stance towards warfare that had been prevalent in previous years. It wasn't until 1957 that director Mikhail Kalatozov and writer Viktor Rozov became bold enough to produce what is widely-considered the first post-Stalin Soviet masterpiece, Letyat zhuravli / The Cranes are Flying, one of the finest depictions of war I've seen from any country or time period. Not only was the film lauded for its artistic brilliance in the Soviet Union, but international recognition was soon to follow, and Kalatozov's film was honoured with the Palm d'Or at the 1958 Cannes Film Festival.
The Cranes are Flying is both an invigorating visual feast and an audacious, humanistic portrayal of war. Unlike many Soviet war-themed films of the time, it was less constrained by the archetypal figure of the traditional war-time hero, and more concerned with the futility, brutality and, indeed, the inevitability of conflict. Love, as a cinematic concept, is too-often idealised as a notion that somehow conquers all and endures endless hardship, and yet the reality is substantially less romantic. In the film, two lovers, Veronika (Tatyana Samojlova) and Boris (Aleksey Batalov), separated by the advent of the WWII {widely known in the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War, 1941-1945}, pledge to marry after the war, but tragedy denies the couple their wish. Driven to betrayal by the unending torment and uncertainty of waiting, Veronika agrees to wed Boris' cousin, Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin), a handsome but unworthy youth. The film may conclude with the proud victory of the Soviets, and a patriotic flag-waving parade, but the optimism of this sequence is overwhelmingly eclipsed by the bittersweet tragedy of our young female protagonist, who wanders soullessly through the celebrating crowds.
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of The Cranes are Flying is Sergei Urusevsky's inspired and dynamic hand-held cinematography, which realistically and dizzily captures the chaos and confusion of war, not necessarily in the hail of gunfire and the cries of dying comrades {in fact, only one of the film's sequences joins Boris on the Eastern Front}, but from the perspective of the family and friends who are left behind. In one particularly impressive, oft-cited long shot, the camera follows Veronika as she frantically searches for Boris in a crowd of departing recruits and their families. The hand-held camera smoothly follows the girl off a bus, jostles through the crowd alongside her, capturing momentary snippets of loved ones saying farewell to their sons and husbands, before unexpectedly craning above the crowd as Veronika disappears into the dust of a passing squadron of army tanks, a breathtaking movement that offers scope and urgency to the dramatic episode. Urusevsky first acquired his filming experience as a military cameraman during the war, and obviously fell in love with the storytelling possibilities of handheld photography: "The camera," he once declared, "can express what the actor is unable to portray: his inner sensations. The cameraman must act with the actors."

Currently my #4 film of 1957:
1) 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet)
2) The Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean)
3) Det Sjunde inseglet {The Seventh Seal} (Ingmar Bergman)
4) Letyat zhuravli {The Cranes are Flying} (Mikhail Kalatozov)
5) Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick)


Monday, February 25, 2008

Target #193: To Have and Have Not (1944, Howard Hawks)

TSPDT placing: #319
Directed by: Howard Hawks
Written by: Ernest Hemingway (novel), Jules Furthman, William Faulkner (screenplay), Cleve F. Adams (uncredited) , Whitman Chambers (uncredited)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Walter Brennan, Lauren Bacall, Dolores Moran, Hoagy Carmichael, Sheldon Leonard, Walter Szurovy, Marcel Dalio, Walter Sande

If Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall occupy the same screen, you can safely expect fireworks. My first Bogart-Bacall collaboration was John Huston's Key Largo (1948), a solid thriller with a brilliant performance from Edward G. Robinson. However, the chemistry between Bogart and Bacall was surprisingly lacking, and, at the time, I wondered why there was such a fascination for the couple. Recent viewings of Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (1946) and To Have and Have Not (1944) have completely swayed my opinion, and I am now in no doubt of the pair's potency: the sexual chemistry positively sizzles while they're both onscreen! This particular film was Bacall's debut performance, the picture that introduced both audiences and Bogart {he would marry her the following year} to one of cinema's most iconic beauties, fondly remembered for her erotically husky voice. To Have and Have Not is an interesting mixture of war-time adventure and hard-boiled film-noir, set on the island of Martinique under the Vichy regime, and Bogart's Harry "Steve" Morgan is forced to navigate swathes of low-lifes and immoral authority figures.

Howard Hawks, perhaps Hollywood's most versatile master director, was a considerable fan of author Ernest Hemingway, but didn't think all too highly of his 1937 effort, "To Have and Have Not." Taking it upon himself to improve the story, Hawks set his writers upon Hemingway's "bunch of junk," and created what is considered by some to be one of his best films. With its abundance of pistol-clad gangsters and Bogart's legendary noble tough-guy, comparisons with other pulp film-noirs {such as The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Hawks' own The Big Sleep} are perfectly justified, as are the noticeable parallels with Michael Curtiz's Casablanca (1942), with its intriguing war-time tale of romance and loyalty, in addition to a suitably ambiguous ending that emphasises the sheer uncertainty of warfare. A hilarious Walter Brennan provides the comedic relief as Eddie, a well-meaning but hopelessly addicted alcoholic who likes to ask people such inane queries as "was you ever bit by a dead bee?" Marcel Dalio, in a role that would ideally have suited Peter Lorre, is also good as Frenchy, the sincere owner of the local hotel with sympathies for the French Resistance.

What ultimately separates a good film like To Have and Have Not from a masterpiece like, say, Casablanca, is the depth of the characters. By the end of the latter film, we feel as though we've known Rick (Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) for their entire lives, and we feel pain for their romantic sorrows. Howard Hawks has always been more concerned with witty dialogue than character development, and, though there's no doubting the sheer entertainment of his pictures, they are rarely able to strike a chord close to the heart. Most of this film's characters are little more than two-dimensional caricatures, and the camera, in order to avoid distracting from the excellence of the screenplay, does little of any interest. To Have and Have Not is certainly a solid film, but it's not exactly "exciting" film-making, with the exception, of course, of the coupling of Bogart and Bacall, which was a stroke of genius on Hawks' part. Also notable is the musical soundtrack, with Hoagy Carmichael appearing as a hotel piano player to perform “Hong Kong Blues,” and Bacall singing “How Little We Know.”

Currently my #5 film of 1944:
1) Double Indemnity (Billy Wilder)
2) Arsenic and Old Lace (Frank Capra)
3) Gaslight (George Cukor)
4) Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock)
5) To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks)


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Target #192: The Informer (1935, John Ford)

TSPDT placing: #616
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: Liam O'Flaherty (novel), Dudley Nichols (writer)
Starring: Victor McLaglen, Heather Angel, Preston Foster, Margot Grahame. Wallace Ford, Una O'Connor, J.M. Kerrigan

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

Yet again, early morning television proves an invaluable resource for films that I otherwise would never have been able to track down. At four o'clock in the morning, I stumbled out of bed to begin recording The Informer (1935), my fourth film from prolific American director John Ford, and an excellent one at that. Set during the Irish Civil War in 1922, the screenplay was adapted by Dudley Nichols from the novel of the same name by Liam O'Flaherty. Though he was born in the United States, and is most renowned for his "Americana" pictures, both of Ford's parents were Irish, which explains the director's decision to direct the film. Victor McLaglen plays Gypo Nolan, a brutish but well-meaning ruffian who informs on an old friend, Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford), in order to claim the £20 reward for his girlfriend, Katie (Margot Grahame). When Frankie is killed during his attempted arrest, the Irish Republican Army, of which both Frankie and Gypo were members, begins to investigate the traitor behind the incident, every clue bringing them closer and closer to the real culprit. Meanwhile, Gypo is plagued with guilt for his friend's untimely death, and descends into a bout of heavy-drinking that rivals Don Birnam in The Lost Weekend (1945) in its excessiveness. As Gypo drowns his sorrows in copious volumes of alcohol, trapped in a vicious little circle of depression, his extravagant spending captures the attention of the investigating IRA members. For the one time in his life, Gypo finds himself surrounded by admirers (including an amusing J.M. Kerrigan), who enthusiastically clap him on the back and christen him "King Gypo" for his physical might. However, it's obvious that these people feel no affection for the man, and are simple showing him attention to exploit him for money. The additional £20 brought by Frankie's death could never buy Gypo an assembly of friends – indeed, in a bitter twist of irony, the money was only made possible by the betrayal and loss of one of his only good companions. A relatively simple fellow, Gypo could not possibly have fully considered the consequences of his actions, and is eventually offered forgiveness on account of his "not knowing what he was doing," but his foolishness must not go unpunished.

Criticism is occasionally levelled at Ford's film for its allegedly propagandistic support of a "terrorist" organisation. Though this stance obviously depends on one's personal views {I certainly don't know enough Irish history to pass judgement}, there's no doubt that the film portrays the Irish Republican Army as selfless, dedicated and impartial, a proud piece of Irish patriotism if I ever saw it. However, the main theme of the story is that of betrayal; driven by intense poverty, one ordinary man betrays the confidence of his good friend, and comes to deeply regret his actions. The tormented Gypo is played mainly for pity, and Victor McLaglen gives a powerful performance that betrays a lifetime of unsatisfying existence, culminating in one terrible decision that condemns him to an uneasy death. The Informer was John Ford's first major Oscar success, winning a total of four awards (from six nominations), including Best Actor for McLaglen {who snatched the statue from the three-way favourites of Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)}, Best Director and Best Screenplay for Dudley Nichols {who declined the award due to Union disagreements}.

Currently my #1 film of 1935:
1) The Informer (John Ford)
2) Top Hat (Mark Sandrich)
3) The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock)


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Target #191: High Noon (1952, Fred Zinnemann)

TSPDT placing: #283
Directed by: Fred Zinnemann
Written by: John W. Cunningham (story), Carl Foreman (screenplay)
Starring: Gary Cooper, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Bridges, Katy Jurado, Grace Kelly, Otto Kruger, Lon Chaney Jr., Harry Morgan, Ian MacDonald, Lee Van Cleef

It's only very recently that I've taken an interest in the American Western genre, and, as far as I've been able to tell, each film falls loosely into two categories. The first group is comprised of the sort of films for which John Ford is renowned – Technicolor epics which involve the American frontier, magnificent countryside and tenacious tribes of Native Americans. The second group I have delicately termed "small Westerns," usually low-budget, black-and-white stories – typically occurring over a small period of time – in which an ordinary man must summon all his courage to confront a gang of crazy and unpredictable cowboys. High Noon (1952), directed by Hollywood stalwart Fred Zinnemann, falls snugly into the latter category, and succeeds relatively well in being a tense and atmospheric suspense Western. An aging Gary Cooper stars as Will Kane, the retiring Marshal of a small American town, who is forced to single-handedly confront an old enemy, Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), who is set to arrive on the noon train. As Will scrambles frantically about town to secure assistance, his pleads are rebuffed at every turn, by friends and enemies alike.

Cooper, aged 51 at the time of the film's release, won his second Oscar for his portrayal of Kane, an aging hero who finds that he simply can't run away from a confrontation, not so much because he wants to be heroic, but because he knows that he'll never be able to live with himself. As he marches across the dry, dusty roads of the small town – abandoned by those he considered his friends – Kane's ravaged features exhibit a sad loneliness, the pain of rejection and betrayal all too tragically evident on his face {Cooper was suffering from stomach ulcers and back pain at the time of filming, which presumably assisted the actor in demonstrating such pained emotions}. Also starring is the lovely Grace Kelly in only her second film role, and, though she isn't really given much to do, her mere presence is enough to add some warmth to the picture. The story itself unfolds almost in real-time {105 story minutes compared to 85 minutes of running time}, and Zinnemann exploits this to heighten the tension. The camera frequently cuts to a shot of the nearest clock, which steadily and inevitably ticks away towards noon, every second bringing Kane ever-so-closer to his moment of judgement.

High Noon proved one of the most influential Westerns of its time, and films such as Delmer Dave's 3:10 to Yuma (1957) surely could not have existed if not for its inspiration. However, and I suspect I'll be alone in this assessment, I consider the latter to be the superior picture, not because its better acted or directed, but simply because I felt that Dave did a finer job of drawing the odds against the film's hero. Both pictures achieve excellent suspense by continually keeping one eye fixated on the nearest time-piece, but High Noon lacks an intimidating villain for the audience to fear. Indeed, most of the running-time builds up towards Frank Miller's arrival, but MacDonald unfortunately fails to live up to our worst expectations. High Noon was Carl Foreman's final film before he was affected by the Hollywood blacklist, and many critics view the story as an allegory for the McCarthy era witch-hunts: Kane obviously represents the solitary, stoic American citizen who is unfairly abandoned by his friends and colleagues, and leaves the town as a lonely, embittered soul, disillusioned by the cold, dishonourable community that he had once called home.

Currently my #4 film of 1952:
1) Limelight (Charles Chaplin)
2) Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica)
3) Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
4) High Noon (Fred Zinnemann)


Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Target #190: Du rififi chez les hommes / Rififi (1955, Jules Dassin)

TSPDT placing: #578
Directed by: Jules Dassin
Written by: Auguste Le Breton (novel), Jules Dassin, René Wheeler (screenplay), Auguste Le Breton (screenplay and dialogue)
Starring: Jean Servais, Carl Möhner, Janine Darcey, Pierre Grasset, Robert Hossein, Marcel Lupovici, Dominique Maurin, Marie Sabouret, Claude Sylvain, Jules Dassin

As evidenced by the recent success of Ocean's 11 (2001) and its sequels, The Italian Job (2003) and Inside Man (2006), the heist movie is still as popular as ever. For decades, audiences have flocked to the cinema to enjoy the latest crime caper, a veritable goldmine for intrigue, suspense, betrayal and adrenaline-charged action sequences. However, it's always beneficial to consider the origins of a film movement, and, though it may not be the first example, Jules Dassin's Rififi (1955) would undoubtedly influence ever cinematic heist flick that followed it. Employing, and perhaps pioneering, the three-act narrative format that proves commonplace for films of its sort – the preparation, the heist, the aftermath – Rififi slowly and thoughtfully allows its plot to unfold, striving for realism over embellishment, and delicately laying down the cards for a tense and volatile climax. Interestingly, the authorities perform almost no function in the story at all, and so the manner in which the thieves' scheme unravels concerns only themselves and other desirous criminals, cementing the typical film-noir belief that the darker side of humanity – greed, lies, selfishness – will prove its own undoing.

By 1950, director Jules Dassin had already released a string of well-received American film-noir thrillers, before falling victim to the Hollywood blacklist. Considered un-backable by the bulk of the European studios, Dassin languished in poverty for a period of five years, before he was offered the opportunity to direct a low-budget French thriller based on Auguste Le Breton's novel. Du rififi chez les hommes (1955) {which loosely translates to "of brawling among men," a suitable description for the destructive male behaviour that devastates their well-laid plans} proved Dassin's redemption of sorts, becoming an incredible critical and commercial success and winning Best Director at the 1955 Cannes Film Festival. Then-critic François Truffaut famously referred to Dassin's film as "the the best film noir I have ever seen," a lofty word of praise if there ever was one. Though the film differs from classic film noir in that the story unfolds in Paris, it contains sufficient elements of the movement to easily qualify. Indeed, Jean Servais' character, Tony le Stéphanois, might conceivably have been played by Humphrey Bogart – he may be a man past his prime, but he's proud, shrewd and decisive, and it'd be a mistake to get in his way.

Rififi takes a few minutes to fully swing into motion, and, though our introduction to the fellow team members is quite interesting, I found little importance in Tony's relationship with former girlfriend Mado (Marie Sabouret). It was possibly included to further flesh out his character, and to interestingly define the role of women in this particularly story, but I felt that Mado simply distracted from the caper that we were all here to see. However, the undisputed centrepiece of the film is undoubtedly the breathless 33-minute heist sequence, which is entirely devoid of all music and dialogue. The crime unfolds in almost complete silence, the thieves' quiet movements barely audible in the hushed atmosphere of the empty jewellry store. Every unexpected sound leaps out at the audience like a dagger, the single resonating note of a piano acting as the men's mortal enemy. Their ingenious heist unfolds like a meticulously-staged ballet {somewhat reminiscent of the extended pickpocketing sequence in Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (1959)}, every man completely and silently aware of his role in the operation. Following the successful jewel theft, composer Georges Auric is finally allowed to spread his musical wings, and Dassin begins to toy sadistically with the fates of his characters.

Currently my #1 film of 1955:
1) Du rififi chez les hommes {Rififi} (Jules Dassin)
2) The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick)
3) Nuit et brouillard {Night and Fog} (Alain Resnais)


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Target #189: In a Lonely Place (1950, Nicholas Ray)

TSPDT ranking: #253
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
Written by: Dorothy B. Hughes (story), Edmund H. North (adaptation), Andrew Solt (screenplay)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Grahame, Frank Lovejoy, Carl Benton Reid, Art Smith, Jeff Donnell, Martha Stewart

In 1950, Billy Wilder released his latest masterpiece, Sunset Blvd., a scathing satire on the pitfalls of Hollywood celebrity, delicately drawing a contrast between the deluded and volatile has-been Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) and the scheming wanna-be screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden). While Wilder's film deservedly received an overwhelming critical response, and its share of controversy, another impressive, similarly-themed film slipped beneath the radar that same year. For decades, director Nicholas Ray was overlooked and neglected by most film critics, before developing something of a cult following in the 1970s, and films such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955) – which I first watched just a week ago – are now recognised as masterpieces. In a Lonely Place (1950) has only now been lauded as one of the finest entries into the film-noir movement, and Humphrey Bogart's performance has emerged as among the most intense and profound in his distinguished repertoire. A brooding study of aggression, trust and success, Ray's film meticulously deconstructs the Hollywood myth, revealing a frightening world where the man you love could very well be a murderer.

Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a down-on-his-luck screenwriter, an unsuccessful artist who resents being pressured into writing hackneyed, unoriginal scripts, which are guaranteed money-makers for the studios but possess zero artistic integrity. The morning after he brings home a bar hat-check girl (Martha Stewart) to recite the plot of the novel he is to adapt, Steele is hauled into the police department to explain why the girl was found murdered, her strangled body dumped from a moving vehicle. Appearing almost indifferent to the crime, Steele declines all knowledge of the homicide, and his story is shakily corroborated by a neighbour, Laurel Gray (Gloria Grahame), with whom he forms an intimate relationship. As Steele begins to pen his latest screenplay, he uncovers an outlet for his pent-up aggression, however, when Laurel betrays a lingering suspicion that her love might possibly have perpetrated the horrific murder, he threatens to lash out in a fit of violence, only further cementing her misgivings. By the film's end, the tragedy of the couple's relationship is revealed: whether or not Steele actually did commit the murder is almost irrelevant; what ultimately dooms their romance is that he conceivably could have.
In an obvious critique of the Hollywood studio system, Steele bitterly condemns the career of a successful producer, accusing him of remaking the same movie twenty times and of being a "popcorn salesman." The producer, apparently comfortable with his prosperous but creatively-deficient profession, snidely reminds Steele that everyone in Hollywood is inherently a "popcorn salesman," so why fight it? It's this notion of creativity – or, rather, the lack of creativity in film-making – that forms the heart of In a Lonely Place. There's no doubt that Dixon Steele is a talented screenwriter, but his reluctance to allow his work to be influenced by popular opinion makes him feel trapped and alone, as though Hollywood is attempting to stamp out his genius. His frustration with the film-making business is allowed to accumulate steadily within, before being unleashed in adrenaline-charged explosions of aggression and violence. From here is born the dilemma of Laurel's relationship with him: it is Steele's creativity with which she most assuredly fell in love, but this gift is intrinsically linked with the hostility of which she is so frightened.

Currently my #4 film of 1950:
1) Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder)
2) Harvey (Henry Koster)
3) Rashômon (Akira Kurosawa)
4) In a Lonely Place (Nicholas Ray)


Saturday, February 16, 2008

Target #188: Brief Encounter (1945, David Lean)

TSPDT ranking: #143
Directed by: David Lean
Written by: Noel Coward (play) (uncredited), Anthony Havelock-Allan, David Lean, Ronald Neame (all uncredited)
Starring: Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard, Stanley Holloway, Joyce Carey, Cyril Raymond, Everley Gregg, Marjorie Mars

My fourth film from David Lean is yet further proof – after the expressionistically atmospheric Oliver Twist (1948) – that the director is every bit as talented when he's not creating sweeping widescreen Technicolor epics. A glance at the brief plot outline for Brief Encounter (1945) didn't exactly catch my interest, but the deceptively-simple story is handled so masterfully that my attention never waned. Laura Jesson (Celia Johnson) is a happily-married housewife with two young children. For the duration of her marriage, she has remained dutifully loyal and absolutely content with her current situation; her husband, Fred (Cyril Raymond), is a plain and somewhat uninteresting man, but he loves her very much, and that's what matters most. Laura's tale unfolds in flashback, as she imagines recounting to her husband the emotional events of past weeks, as she came to fall in love with a charismatic married doctor, Alec Harvey (Trevor Howard). Following several chance meetings, as though fate were pushing them together, Laura and Alec begin their brief romantic liaison, despite the obvious immorality of their actions and the knowledge that their time together is devastatingly limited.

In the early period of his directing career, Lean collaborated with producer/writer Noel Coward on four occasions, and Brief Encounter is the result of their final partnership. The story was expanded from Coward's one-act place, "Still Life (1936)," and adapted by Anthony Havelock-Allan, Ronald Neame and Lean himself. In a refreshing change from most romantic pictures, Brief Encounter depicts love as a frustrating, tormenting and even violent emotion; though Laura is at first enchanted by her affection for the handsome Alec, the guilt caused by her disloyalty threatens to destroy her emotionally, and the bitter fact that her love is ultimately doomed leads her almost to suicide. Robert Krasker's cinematography is beautifully moody, often using locomotive smoke {multiple pivotal scenes take place at a train station} as an effective aesthetic device. Some have noted the film's apparent ties to the film noir genre, with Lean choosing to shoot much of the film in rain-slicked streets, dimly-lit interiors and unglamorous industrialised train stations; the film's conclusion notes the futility of love, and its tragic, detrimental effect on comfortable family relationships.

More than anything else, Brief Encounter is an exploration of family morality. There's no doubt that Laura loves her husband, but her life with him is so tedious and unstimulating that her weekly shopping journeys into London are all that keep her functioning. Laura's romantic liaison with Alec fills her with an unbridled joy, an emotion that so overwhelms her that it is not until hours later that the ethical implications of her actions finally strike home. The devastating moment when she first finds herself lying to her husband, a minor but all-important detail, is one of the film's most powerful moments, more so when Laura later muses: "It's awfully easy to lie when you know you're trusted implicitly." With its sympathetic attitude towards marital infidelity, a film such as Brief Encounter could never have been made in Hollywood. The Production Code {a.k.a. the Hays Code} strictly prohibited the portrayal of adulterous relationships that were "explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively." Nevertheless, the film was David Lean's greatest critical success to date, and his film was nominated for three Academy Awards {Best Actress, Best Director, Best Writing}, in addition to tying for the Grand Prize of the Cannes Film Festival.

Currently my #2 film of 1945:
1) The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder)
2) Brief Encounter (David Lean)
3) 'I Know Where I'm Going!' (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger)


Friday, February 15, 2008

Target #187: She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949, John Ford)

TSPDT ranking: #415
Directed by: John Ford
Written by: James Warner Bellah (stories), Frank S. Nugent, Laurence Stallings (screenplay)
Starring: John Wayne, Joanne Dru, John Agar, Ben Johnson, Harry Carey Jr., Victor McLaglen, Mildred Natwick, George O'Brien, Chief John Big Tree

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

After finally seeing The Searchers (1956) a few weeks ago, my first John Ford/John Wayne Western, I was anxious to get my hands on some more, and an opportunity came quickly with the late-night showing of She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949). Produced on a budget of $1.6 million, the film was one of cinema's most expensive Westerns at the time, but the radiant Technicolor photography, coupled with Ford's ardently professional direction, resulted in a picture that has dated surprisingly little in the last half-century. The second film in a trilogy that also includes Fort Apache (1948) and Rio Grande (1950) {both of which I am yet to see}, Ford's Western concerns the travails of the United States Army Cavalry, with John Wayne donning a moustache to play Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles, the distinguished no-nonsense leader of the Cavalry, who is just days from official retirement. Winton C. Hoch's exemplary Oscar-winning cinematography perfectly captures the might and majesty of Monument Valley, Utah, particularly during an impressive lightning-storm sequence.

Following the defeat of General Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn, the American frontier is in disarray. Tribes of Native Americans – Cheyenne, Comanche, Apache – are forgetting their petty inter-tribal disputes and banding together in opposition to the invading settlers. Capt. Nathan Cutting Brittles, though somewhat reluctant to retire at such as crucial stage of the conflict, embarks on his final objective, though is hampered by the baggage of two women (Joanne Dru, Mildred Natwick) who must be evacuated before winter sets in. The film's storyline is somewhat inconsequential, never threatening to even approach the emotional depth of 'The Searchers,' and some of the film's events are almost incomprehensible to one who is ill-versed in American history and Westerns in general. However, Wayne's profound characterisation of Capt. Brittles forms the picture's core, and he is, indeed, astonishing in the subtle and thoughtful complexity that he brings to his character. The remaining, less-experienced players, such as Harry Carey Jr. and John Agar, aren't particularly memorable, but serve the story adequately and with presumably-sound authenticity.

Fortunately, John Ford litters the rather lightweight story with an enjoyable amount of humour, compensating for the relative lack of emotional depth with sheer entertainment. Sgt. Quincannon (Victor McLaglen) provides most of the laughs, particularly during a drunken brawl sequence that sees him fending off seven able-bodied soldiers and still finding time to take another sip of whisky between swings. Also mildly amusing is the friction between lieutenants Flint Cohill and Ross Penell (Agar and Carey, Jr.), both of whom notice that Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru) is wearing a yellow ribbon, and hope that it is for them. The story's ending struck me as something of an anti-climax, even though, admittedly, it would have been downright arrogant for Ford to alter history. As the Native Americans congregate in preparation for a direct assault on their enemies, Brittles' stern conversation with Chief Pony That Walks (Chief John Big Tree) promises an incredible climactic battle of epic proportions. However, when John Wayne astutely manages to disrupt the planned attack by scattering the tribes’ horses, I couldn’t help feeling just a bit disappointed.

Currently my #4 film of 1949:
1) The Third Man (Carol Reed)
2) A Run for Your Money (Charles Frend)
3) Nora inu {Stray Dog} (Akira Kurosawa)
4) She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford)
5) Under Capricorn (Alfred Hitchcock)


Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Target #186: Rebel Without a Cause (1955, Nicholas Ray)

TSPDT ranking: #360
Directed by: Nicholas Ray
Written by: Stewart Stern (screenplay), Irving Shulman (adaptation), Nicholas Ray (story)
Starring: James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, Jim Backus, Ann Doran, Corey Allen, William Hopper, Rochelle Hudson, Edward Platt

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

When it comes to 1950s cinema, few films are more iconic than Nicholas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which was one of the first to actively explore the themes of juvenile delinquency and the decay of American youth, and the widening rift between adolescents and their parents. The screenplay by Stewart Stern and Irving Shulman, from a story by the director, derived its title from an actual 1944 publication, "Rebel Without A Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath," but bares little other resemblance to this book. Of the three feature films for which James Dean is remembered, it is this one with which he is most closely associated, his tragic death in a motor accident on September 30 1955 somewhat validating his reputation as a "rebel without a cause," ensuring his enduring legacy as an American cultural icon {though undoubtedly denying the cinema-going public of a lifetime of brilliant performances}. In 1956, Ray's film received three Oscar nominations, including acting nods for co-stars Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo {Dean received the first of his two posthumous Best Actor nominations, but for Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955) rather than this film}.

Jim Stark (Dean) is a rebellious seventeen-year-old, whose tendency to get into trouble with the police forces his family to move neighbourhoods often. He is one of three adolescents in the film whose degrading relationship with their parents – to varying degrees, as I'll explain – attempts to demonstrate and explain the widening rift between generations. Jim finds himself able to talk to his father (Jim Backus), but can next coax a straight answer out of him. Frank Stark is a meek, submissive husband – shown in one scene dressed in a woman's apron to highlight his lack of household authority – and Jim finds it difficult to respect him. Judy (Natalie Wood) can hardly interact with her father (William Hopper), as he resents her approaching maturity and labels her a "dirty tramp" for dressing up and using lipstick. As for the troubled Plato (Sal Mineo), his parents have more or less deserted him, and he is left in the care of an African-American maid who isn't able to control his disturbed personality. By the end of the film, Plato has become the story's "sacrificial lamb," his tragic shooting death the inevitable culmination of the neglect of his parents.
Had a lesser director held the reins during the film's production, it would have been easy for Rebel Without a Cause to erode in quality with the passing of time. A picture dealing with then-contemporary issues such as juvenile delinquency {today a considerably more complex and troubling subject} might now appear dated, but it holds up surprisingly well, both as a societal caution and as artistic entertainment. The first ten minutes do, indeed, feel something like a public service announcement, but the narrative falls into a comfortable rhythm as we come to know and sympathise with the major characters. Likewise, some outdated elements now seem exaggerated and a little silly {the consequences of the "chickie-run" didn't need to be quite so drastic – and Judy completely forgot the death of her boyfriend within hours}, but all is forgiven in view of James Dean's memorable, incredibly heartfelt performance. His anguished cry of "you're tearing me apart!" betrays the confusion and torment suffered by many youths stranded in a household that they can't understand, and whose shortcomings they blame on themselves – Jim's mother (Ann Doran), notably, uses her son's actions as a scapegoat for the failing of her marriage.


Currently my #3 film of 1955:
1) The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick)
2) Nuit et brouillard {Night and Fog} (Alain Resnais)
3) Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)
4) The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton)
5) The Trouble with Harry (Alfred Hitchcock)


Thursday, February 7, 2008

Target #185: Roman Holiday (1953, William Wyler)

TSPDT placing: #829
Directed by: William Wyler
Written by: Dalton Trumbo, John Dighton, Ian McLellan Hunter (front for Dalton Trumbo)
Starring: Gregory Peck, Audrey Hepburn, Eddie Albert, Hartley Power, Harcourt Williams, Margaret Rawlings, Tullio Carminati, Paolo Carlini

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

It was about time that I was introduced to one of the silver screen's most graceful beauties. Though I had caught a brief glimpse of her in the Ealing comedy The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), I had not yet seen a film featuring the lovely Audrey Hepburn. Indeed, prior to the release of William Wyler's 1953 romantic comedy, Roman Holiday, neither had most American audiences. The role proved one of cinema's most astounding breakthroughs, and, not only did the film receive three Oscars from ten nominations, but among the wins was Audrey Hepburn for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Despite a considerable age difference between the two leading performances {13 years separated Hepburn and Gregory Peck, already considered an acting veteran} the romantic chemistry between the two stars works faultlessly, and the manner in which Joe Bradley's relationship with Princess Ann gradually transforms from frustration to exploitation to love is so incredibly natural that it must represent one of the finest romances of the 1950s - a lovely "backwards" Cinderella story.

Princess Ann (Hepburn) is a royal princess from an unspecified European country. Her past weeks have been dedicated to a gruelling, highly-publicised tour of European capital cities, her every minute tightly scheduled. For the duration of her travels, Ann has been forced to maintain the pretense of an elegant, proper monarch, her time expended on tedious official duties. In an excruciating opening dance sequence, which is later contrasted with the jovial celebrations aboard the barge on the Tiber River, Ann is forced to waltz with a progressively older selection of male dignitaries, each more unattractive than the last. Though we're not explicitly told the princess' age {Hepburn was 24 years old at the time, though her character tries to pass herself off as a school student}, such a lifestyle is understandably ill-suited to such a beautiful young lady. One night, after being given a sedative to quell her restlessness, Ann secretly escapes from her country's embassy and decides to enjoy a stroll through colourful Rome. A gruff newspaper journalist, Joe Bradley (Peck), finds her sleeping on a street bench, and begrudgingly takes her back to his apartment.

Roman Holiday really hits its stride in the second act, once Joe has discovered the Princess' true identity and decides to exploit her innocence for the purposes of an exclusive story. Photojournalist Irving Radovich (Oscar-nominated Eddie Albert, whose performance struck me as surprisingly modern) is dragged along to secretly take photographs, but his apparent inability to take a hint leads to the systematic destruction of his clean clothes. The final touching scene, in which the pair communicate their love and respect for one another through official allusion {"By all means, Rome. I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live"}, proves particularly powerful. The closing shot, a backward-moving tracking shot following Joe as he retreats from the girl he loves, has a noticeable sense of tragedy about it. Throughout the shot, we are almost waiting for Princess Ann to emerge in the background to proclaim her adoration, but, alas, she never does. After all, life can not always be a fairy-tale, but sometimes one day is enough.

Currently my #3 film of 1953:
1) From Here To Eternity (Fred Zinnemann)
2) I Confess (Alfred Hitchcock)
3) Roman Holiday (William Wyler)
4) The War Of The Worlds (Byron Haskin)
5) The Glenn Miller Story (Anthony Mann)


Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Target #184: The Pilgrim (1923, Charles Chaplin)

TSPDT placing: #753
Directed by: Charles Chaplin (uncredited)
Written by: Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Kitty Bradbury, Syd Chaplin, Mack Swain, Dean Riesner, Charles Reisner

Regardless of the terrific pictures that Charles Chaplin directed in the latter half of his career, he will always be best remembered for his portrayal of the Little Tramp, that bumbling yet kind-hearted vagrant with whom audiences continue to fall in love. Making his debut in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), Chaplin's "Little Fellow" soon became one of cinema's most beloved and recognisable figures, and Chaplin one of Hollywood's biggest stars. Such was the character's success that, prior to 1940, it was a rare occurrence for Chaplin to portray anybody who wasn't the Tramp. One such attempt was in an unfinished short, The Professor (1919), in which Chaplin portrays a poignant, lowly street performer named Professor Bosco. The Pilgrim (1923), at around sixty minutes in length, was the last of Chaplin's "mini-features" before he dedicated his time almost exclusively to feature-length films, and it is interesting in that he doesn't play the Little Tramp, or, if he does, then it's a version of the character that we haven't seen before.

In the film, Chaplin plays an escaped prisoner, who, in his flight from the authorities, is mistaken for the young parson who was supposed to be arriving at a small country town. It wasn't unusual for the Little Tramp to find himself in trouble with the police {and, indeed, he did a spell in prison during Modern Times (1936)}, so it's not altogether unreasonable to conclude that this convict is one and the same character. Despite missing many of his trademarks – the baggy trousers, the cane, the derby hat – his bumbling benevolence is precisely the same, even if one brief flashback shows him sharing a friendly cigarette with an unscrupulous fellow jailbird (Charles Reisner). Notably, a newspaper headline in the film betrays our hero's name to be "Lefty Lombard" alias "Slippery Elm," though these could easily be pseudonyms. 'The Pilgrim' is a film that places more emphasis on plain slapstick than any of Chaplin's feature films, and the pathos that is apparent in most of his works is noticeably lacking, as is any real romantic connection with leading lady Edna Purviance {the final occasion on which the two co-starred}.

Despite the absence of any real emotion, Chaplin's film still succeeds on its own terms, with the criminal's situation allowing for an assortment of amusing scenarios. Dressed as a parson, one is always expected to act in the most civilised fashion, and yet our poor hero finds that he just can't play the part. Chaplin's incredible skill for visual communication is most stunningly apparent in his character's gesticulated re-telling of the David vs Goliath legend, and, without the aid of sound, the audience can easily follow every single detail of the story. Also hilarious are the Pilgrim's attempts at making a cake {using the hat belonging to Chaplin's brother and co-star, Syd}, his response to the antics of Howard Huntington the dishonest thief, and his inability to take a policeman's hint beside the border into Mexico. In 1959, The Pilgrim was one of three films {along with Shoulder Arms (1918) and A Dog's Life (1918)} that Chaplin slightly re-edited and combined to form The Chaplin Revue. He also composed a new soundtrack, as well as a catchy title theme, performed by Matt Monroe, called "I'm Bound for Texas."

Currently my #3 film of 1923:
1) A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate (Charles Chaplin)
2) Safety Last! (Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor)
3) The Pilgrim (Charles Chaplin)


Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Target #183: The Circus (1928, Charles Chaplin)

TSPDT placing: #455
Directed by: Charles Chaplin
Written by: Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Merna Kennedy, Al Ernest Garcia, Harry Crocker

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

The Circus (1928) was one of the few Charles Chaplin features that I was yet to see, but that wasn't from lack of trying. I first attempted to watch the film mid-way through last year, but, being terribly ill at the time, and having to wake up relatively early the following morning, I barely got half-way through the Tramp's antics before I had to turn off the DVD and go to sleep. For some reason that I can't quite explain, it took until yesterday for me to finally commit to another try, and it was a pleasant and entertaining experience. Though certainly one of Chaplin's lesser efforts, The Circus is an enjoyable and imaginative thread of slapstick gags, with the occasional hint of pathos, though not to the extent of many of the Tramp's other feature-length outings. The circus setting provides an ideal collection of props and scenarios for Chaplin to explore, and many of the film's laughs are derived from his character's hopeless attempts at being a clown, performing magic and tight-rope walking. We first find the Tramp {whom Chaplin liked to call the "little fellow"} at a carnival, completely devoid of money, where a devious pickpocket (Steve Murphy) has stashed his winnings into the Tramp's trouser pocket. As he tries to pickpocket his money back, a policeman catches him, and, completely befuddled, the Tramp finds himself graciously thanking the officer for returning the money that he never knew he had. Needless to say, it doesn't take long before both the Tramp and the pickpocket find themselves frantically fleeing the authorities, and Chaplin takes refuge in a maze of mirrors, where the policemen can certainly see their quarry, but can't decide which of the dozen reflections is real. Following a hot pursuit, the Tramp finds himself scuttling through a circus tent in the middle of a performance, and the audience is left in hysterics by his inadvertently hilarious antics. The The Circus Proprietor (Al Ernest Garcia), desperate for anyone who might save his floundering show, hires the Tramp immediately, but deliberately neglects to inform him that he is the star attraction.

As was typical in most of Chaplin's pictures, there is also a love interest that forms the story's emotional heart. Merna Kennedy plays one of the circus performers, the ill-treated step-daughter of the show's proprietor. When they first meet, the Tramp scolds the hungered girl for stealing his meagre breakfast, but quickly takes pity on her, and eventually falls in love. Realising that he lacks the means to provide any respectable life for the women he loves, the Tramp graciously surrenders any notions of marrying her, instead convincing Rex (Harry Crocker), a handsome and upright tight-rope walker, to take her hand in marriage. The film's final image, of Chaplin sitting alone in the newly-deserted field where the circus once resided, is almost achingly poignant, a perfect illustration of the lonely lifestyle that he must lead each day. It was Charles Chaplin, in even his early films, who discovered that tragedy and comedy were never too far apart: though The Circus doesn't quite balance the two as evenly as his various masterpieces, such as Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940), it remains a joyous slapstick romp, with more than enough heart to go around.

Currently my #2 film of 1928:
1) Steamboat Bill, Jr. (Charles Reisner, Buster Keaton)
2) The Circus (Charles Chaplin)
3) Easy Virtue (Alfred Hitchcock)

Currently my #10 film from director Charles Chaplin:
1) Modern Times (1936)
2) The Great Dictator (1940)
3) City Lights (1931)
4) Limelight (1952)
5) The Gold Rush (1925)
6) Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
7) A Woman of Paris: A Drama of Fate (1923)
8) Shoulder Arms (1918)
9) A King in New York (1957)
10) The Circus (1928)