Sunday, June 29, 2008

Target #218: Witness (1985, Peter Weir)

TSPDT placing: #723
Directed by: Peter Weir
Written by: William Kelley (story) (screenplay), Earl W. Wallace (story) (screenplay), Pamela Wallace (story)
Starring: Harrison Ford, Kelly McGillis, Josef Sommer, Lukas Haas, Jan Rubes, Danny Glover, Viggo Mortensen

I daresay that I would have enjoyed Witness (1985) even more had it remained a conventional mystery thriller. This, perhaps, reflects rather negatively on my film-buff credentials, but the film's opening act mounted the tension so brilliantly that it was a pity to see that suspense slowly dissipate into the background. Such an appeal, however, seems quite groundless where director Peter Weir is concerned; given my previous experience with his work, both in Australian cinema (the classic war picture, Gallipoli (1981)) and following his move to Hollywood (the uplifting Dead Poet's Society (1989)), Weir has always favoured emotion and human interaction over the raw thrill of adrenalin-charged action. Even as it stands, Witness deserves to be celebrated for its strong performances, sensitive screenplay and thoughtful exploration of the contrast between the pacifism of the Amish people and the violence and corruption of 1980s mainstream America. The film was Weir's first in Hollywood, after achieving great success with the Australian productions Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously (1982).
Following the death of her husband, a grieving Amish woman, Rachel Lapp (Kelly McGillis), takes her young son Samuel (Lukas Haas) into the city. It is Samuel's first major venture into the lifestyle shunned by his people, and he is initially awed and excited by all the fresh sights and sounds presented to him. But it doesn't take long for the reality of modern society, corrupted and poisoned by the stench of greed and violence, to rear it's ugly head – in the bathroom of a railway station, Samuel witnesses the brutal murder of a city detective, and only he can identify the men responsible. A weary cop, Det. Capt. John Book (Harrison Ford), employs the young boy's help in solving the case, and, when Samuel positively identifies a respected narcotics detective from his own department, Book begins to understand that they've stumbled into something far deeper than anybody could ever have anticipated. Now with a price on his head, Book falls into hiding with the reluctant Amish community, and both parties come to learn a thing or two about the conflicting values of their respective worlds.
Harrison Ford has rarely given a better performance. He's not an actor whom one would typically associate with having a lot of emotional range, but John Book is an intriguingly-subtle character. Note, most particularly, the scene in which Book and Rachel dance in the barn to Sam Cooke's "Wonderful World" – throughout the entire sequence, Book is continually pausing, contemplating the physical contact that is seemingly obligatory in cinematic moments such as these, and consistently deciding against it. Kelly McGillis is remarkably beautiful as the emotionally-conflicted widow, all the more because her character actively attempts to repress any lingering streaks of eroticism (and also thanks to her Amish attire, which fortunately denied her one of those horrifically-dated 1980s hairstyles – see Top Gun (1987)). A crucial benefit of the film's sobering middle act, supplemented by the soft, graceful cinematography of John Seale, is that the audience gradually loses his desensitisation towards violence on film, and so the story's brutal climax is a completely jarring shock to the nerves.

Currently my #5 film of 1985:
1) Idi i smotri {Come and See} (Elem Klimov)
2) Brazil (Terry Gilliam)
3) The Purple Rose of Cairo (Woody Allen)
4) Back To The Future (Robert Zemeckis)
5) Witness (Peter Weir)

Currently my #2 film from director Peter Weir:
1) Gallipoli (1981)
2) Witness (1985)
3) Dead Poet’s Society (1989)
4) The Truman Show (1998)
5) Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

58th Academy Awards, 1986:
* Best Film Editing - Thom Noble (win)
* Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen - Earl W. Wallace (screenplay/story), William Kelley (screenplay/story), Pamela Wallace (story) (win)
* Best Picture - Edward S. Feldman (nomination)
* Best Director - Peter Weir (nomination)
* Best Actor in a Leading Role - Harrison Ford (nomination)
* Best Art Direction-Set Decoration - Stan Jolley, John H. Anderson (nomination)
* Best Cinematography - John Seale (nomination)
* Best Music, Original Score - Maurice Jarre (nomination)

What others have said:

"Up until the return to Pennsylvania, Witness has been a slick, superior thriller. Now it turns into an intelligent and perceptive love story. It's not one of those romances where the man and woman fall into each other's arms because their hormones are programmed that way. It's about two independent, complicated people who begin to love each other because they have shared danger, they work well together, they respect each other - and because their physical attraction for each other is so strong it almost becomes another character in the movie."
Roger Ebert, February 8, 1985

"My favourite Peter Weir film, Witness is something special and to simply call it a thriller sells it short. It's a character based drama, a fish-out-of-water story, a story about good versus evil and a beguiling romance between a city cop and a conservative Amish widow. Three years after Blade Runner, Harrison Ford is at his best, while Kelly McGillis in her second film role, exudes a Grace Kelly-like serenity... The contrast between the tranquil world of the Amish community and the brutality is beautifully described and as Ford's John Book finds himself out of his comfort zone, the full effect of the film's charms begin."
Louise Keller, Urban Cinefile, 2007

"Witness records an unexpected gathering of talent meeting at a notable moment in their careers; because of the fortuitous timing, the 1985 film feels like a time capsule from an earlier age. An unforced look at the Amish community contributes to the novelty and timeless quality of Witness, which—though ostensibly a crime thriller—plays more like a Western in its film-shorthand simplicity and inevitability of plotting... Ford's characters have often displayed a capacity for ferocity, inflamed by loving protectiveness. Book sets this standard, and humanizes the conflict of peace versus the arguable necessity of violence."
Peter Canavese


Saturday, June 28, 2008

Target #217: The Kid (1921, Charles Chaplin)

TSPDT placing: #261
Directed by: Charles Chaplin
Written by: Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Jackie Coogan, Edna Purviance, Carl Miller, John McKinnon, Charles Reisner

Charles Chaplin was born on April 16, 1889, in East Street, Walworth, London. Though his parents, both music hall entertainers, separated before his third birthday, they also raised him into the entertainment business. His first appearance on film was in Making a Living (1914), a one-reel comedy released on February 2, 1914. It didn't take long for Chaplin to find his niche in the film-making industry, and his character of the Tramp – who first appeared in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914) – guaranteed his popularity and longevity in the industry. After a string of successful short films, among the most accomplished of which are Shoulder Arms (1918) and A Dog's Life (1918), Chaplin commenced production on his first feature-length outing with the Tramp. The Kid (1921) proved an instant success, becoming the second highest-grossing film of 1921 {behind Rex Ingram's The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921)} and ensuring another fifteen years of comedies featuring Chaplin's most enduring character.

The Kid opens in somewhat sombre circumstances, as a struggling entertainer (Chaplin regular Edna Purviance) emerges from the hospital clasping her unwanted child. Unable, or perhaps unwilling, to care for the infant, she regretfully abandons the baby in an automobile, which is promptly hijacked by unscrupulous criminals. The car thieves discard the orphan in a garbage-strewn alleyway, at which point our humble vagrant hero comes tramping down the street. Upon his discovery of the little bundle-of-joy, Chaplin demonstrates the most practical response, and glances inquiringly upwards, both at the apartment windows through which residents like to toss their leftovers, and at the Heavens, who conceivably might have dropped a newborn from the sky. After several awkward attempts to unload the baby on somebody else, Chaplin lovingly decides to raise the kid himself, crudely fashioning the necessities of child-raising (a milk bottle, a toilet seat) from his own modest possessions. Five years on, the Kid (Jackie Coogan) has blossomed into a devoted and energetic sidekick, a partner-in-crime if you will, and it is then that Chaplin's fatherhood is placed in jeopardy.

The Tramp's young co-star was the son of an actor, and Chaplin first discovered him during a vaudeville performance, when the four-year-old entertained audiences with the "shimmy," a popular dance at the time. Chaplin was delighted with Coogan's natural talent for mimicry, and his ability to precisely impersonate the Tramp's unique expressions and mannerisms – becoming, in effect, a childhood version of Chaplin – was crucial to the film's success. The domestic bond exhibited by the pair is faultless in every regard, and, adding to the poignancy of their relationship, Chaplin began work on the production just days after the death of his own three-day-old newborn son, Norman Spencer Chaplin (during his short-lived marriage to child actor Mildred Harris). The mutual compassion and understanding underlying the central father-son relationship remains very touching nearly ninety years later, particularly when the pair employ their combined talents to promote the continued prolificacy of the Tramp's window-repair business. However, even during proceedings as ordinary as a pancake breakfast, that the two share a genuine affection for one another is beyond question.

According to Chaplin's autobiography, actor Jack Coogan, Sr (who plays several minor roles throughout the film, including the troublesome Devil in the dream sequence) told his young son that, if he couldn't cry convincingly, he'd be sent to a workhouse for real. We can never know for certain if this was the case, but what we do know is that, during the separation sequence, young Coogan delivers one of the most heart-wrenching child performances ever committed to the screen, his hands stretched outwards in a grief-stricken plea for mercy. His performance is intercut with Chaplin grappling frantically with the authorities, his widened eyes staring directly at the camera, as though actively pleading for the audience's sympathy and assistance; it's one of the director's all-time most unforgettable moments, and first decisive instance that Chaplin was able to so seamlessly blend humour and pathos. In the 1970s, Chaplin – ever the perfectionist – re-released the film with a newly-composed score, and deleted three additional sequences involving Purviance as the orphan's mother, which might explain why the kid's father (Carl Miller) apparently serves no use to the story.

Currently my #2 film of 1921:
1) Körkarlen {The Phantom Chariot} (Victor Sjöström)
2) The Kid (Charles Chaplin)

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 Kid (1921)

Also on the TSPDT top 1000:
#21 - City Lights (1931)
#34 - The Gold Rush (1925)
#52 - Modern Times (1936)
#176 - Monsieur Verdoux (1947)
#252 - The Great Dictator (1940)
#403 - Limelight (1952)
#455 - The Circus (1928)
#753 - The Pilgrim (1923)
#876 - A Woman of Paris (1923)

What others have said:

“Chaplin and Coogan are so in synch here that it's believable that they really are father and son, and others on the set report that Chaplin really did treat the young actor like his son during the prolonged shoot. Like clones from two generations, Chaplin and Coogan successfully bring off virtually perfect comic scenes that come across naturally, but it's the "sentimental" scene that everyone remembers…. The pure anguish that both Coogan and Chaplin display during the separation scene feels so real that we could be watching a documentary paralleling the workhouse days of Dickens' London. Coogan's tears, outstretched arms, and silent wailing all communicate total devastation as do the cuts to Chaplin's underplayed looks of horror and desperation. Combined together, it's a sequence that lives on forever and continually is replayed in Chaplin highlights.”
John Nesbit

“While losing his son undoubtedly reawakened those old boyhood memories, their artistic rendering took place with Charlie's heart, not his head. And the idea probably succeeds because it is largely unconscious rather than self-conscious autobiography…Taking the lowbrow slapstick route, he quarried for bits and shticks, not archetypes and myths. But funny things can happen on that low road to comedy, just as they do on the high road to tragedy. Just as Oedipus and Laius--father and son--encounter each other by chance at one of life's crossroads, so Charlie the fatherless kid and Chaplin the childless father accidentally meet in a London lane. Unlike their ancient predecessors, whose hearts are filled with mistrust and hate, Charlie Chaplin and the lost child are filled with yearning and affection. And so their tale is a bittersweet ballad of love and loss. Griminess is next to Godliness in a comic universe where the disinherited can inherit the earth.”
Stephen M. Weissman

“Unless your heart is as stony as a biblical execution, I challenge you to watch unmoved as Charlie Chaplin's heroic vagabond rescues five-year-old Jackie Coogan from being hauled away to the "orphan asylum." At this point in The Kid, Chaplin's musical score tugs any heartstrings not yet plucked by the look on the Kid's face as he pleads for release, or on the Tramp's as he victoriously embraces the foundling child. Say what you will about Chaplin's deployment of pathos (you can almost see him pulling the pin with his teeth and lobbing it into our laps), this scene in "a picture with a smile and perhaps a tear" is one of those glorious movie moments that demonstrates what the medium can do when the right emotionally haunted, increasingly self-absorbed, control-freak genius is calling the shots.”
Mark Bourne
Extracts of reviews for other Chaplin pictures:

"Written, produced and directed by Chaplin, A Woman of Paris is a tightly-paced drama/romance, employing a lot of dialogue (somewhat unusual for Chaplin, who usually relied on extended slapstick comedic set pieces to drive his silent films) and a three-way relationship that has since become commonplace in films of this sort. The film allowed Chaplin to extend his skills beyond the realm of the lovable little Tramp. Unfortunately, this seemingly was not what audiences wanted. Perhaps perceived as a harmful satire of the American way of life, A Woman of Paris was banned in several US states on the grounds of immorality, and it was a commercial flop. Chaplin had conceived the film as a means of launching the individual acting career of Edna Purviance, though this bid was unsuccessful. It did, however, make an international star of Adolphe Menjou."

"Despite the absence of any real emotion in The Pilgrim, 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."

"A Dog's Life was Chaplin's first film for First National Films, a company founded in 1917 by the merger of 26 of the biggest first-run cinema chains... What is perhaps most impressive about the film is the way in which Chaplin parallels the daily struggles of the Tramp with those of the young dog, Scraps, a Thoroughbred Mongrel... In support of the old adage that good will always be rewarded with good, Chaplin comes to the aid of Scraps when he is being attacked by a gang of predatory dogs, and, in return, the intelligent canine ultimately retrieves the means by which our hero may retire into the country with his sweetheart (Edna Purviance). As in The Pilgrim, the chemistry between Purviance and Chaplin is somewhat unconvincing, but she does elicit a fair amount of empathy in her portrayal of an exploited and cruelly-treated bar singer."


Friday, June 27, 2008

Target #216: Gone with the Wind (1939, Victor Fleming)

TSPDT placing: #62
Directed by: Victor Fleming, George Cukor (uncredited), Sam Wood (uncredited)
Written by: Margaret Mitchell (novel), Sidney Howard (screenplay), F. Scott Fitzgerald (dialogue polish) (uncredited), Oliver H.P. Garrett, Ben Hecht, Jo Swerling, John Van Druten (all contributing writers) (all uncredited)
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel, Ona Munson

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

Producer David O. Selznick must have known in advance that Gone with the Wind (1939) would become the highest-grossing motion picture ever made. He purchased the rights to Margaret Mitchell's bestselling novel for an unprecedented $50,000, heaped a truckload of money into the project and exhausted the efforts of no less than three directors – Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood and possibly a few others, including William Cameron Menzies and B. Reeves Eason. Such was Selznick's passion for the project that he is typically credited as the prime architect of the film's success, a definitive exception to the auteur theory – unless, of course, one simply considers Selznick to be the auteur. The extravagance of the production is instantly recognised in the film's elaborate costume and set design, in addition to Ernest Haller's sweeping epic cinematography. If it weren't for such lavishness, the picture might easily have vanished into the background as a stuffy, overwrought melodrama; but filmmaking of this magnitude leaves a considerable imprint on one's memory, and audiences have come to epitomise Gone with the Wind as the embodiment of Hollywood's Golden Age.

The most exciting acts of the story, which was adapted by Sidney Howard from Mitchell's novel, take place during the Civil War, when the triumphant Yankees are marching towards Atlanta, casting an ominous shadow over the ill-fated city. The grandiose scope of the photography – the seemingly-endless sprawl of wounded soldiers, the desperate last-minute dash past the blazing munitions factory – would go unrivalled until the late 1950s, when David Lean discovered the widescreen camera. Clarke Gable was the fans' only choice for the role of the roguish but noble Rhett Butler, but it's Scarlett O'Hara whom I find most interesting, even if I disliked her more and more as the film progressed. The 1930s was very much a decade of change in how women were portrayed in cinema, with actresses such as Mae West (I'm No Angel (1933)) and Bette Davis (Dark Victory (1939)) achieving success as smart, independent characters, shifting away from the notion of the "damsel in distress." Scarlett, a role eventually given to unknown Vivien Leigh, was the apex of the independent woman – so independent, in fact, that she could never be happy in love with a man.

The film has a fascinatingly-ambivalent relationship with its main protagonist, Scarlett O'Hara. She is obviously a very strong female character, and her resourcefulness and enterprise in difficult times is justly-celebrated… however, at what price? In order to spite the Yankees for destroying her way of life, Scarlett essentially becomes those whom she holds in such contempt, surrendering any remaining traces of honour or integrity. There's no doubt that she commits damnable atrocities, often at the expense of those who love her, but the film can't quite bring itself to hate her – the audience is left suspended in midstream, presented with a wolf in sheep's clothing, but nonetheless expected to celebrate the clothing for its practicality and expediency. Conversely, Melanie Hamilton (the lovely Olivia de Havilland) embodies kindness and selflessness, but she is inevitably doomed to a premature death, perhaps a product of her inability to adapt to this new lifestyle. In the gritty aftermath of the American Civil War, the kind and decent are condemned to an uneasy demise, whereas the crass, opportunistic Scarlett lives to greet another day.

The film should have ended with Clarke Gable's immortal parting words, a fade to black as his figure disappears forever into the mist, with our selfish and unprincipled anti-heroine having finally received her comeuppance, three times filled and running over. After stopping at nothing to obtain what she wants, Scarlett ultimately finds that she has been chasing an illusion, and, in the meantime, she has pushed away all that she still holds dear in this world, the one man who potentially offered her a lifetime of happiness. But, alas, Selznick had a lot of money riding on this picture, and it certainly would not have done to disappoint the ladies in the audience. Instead, the film concludes with Scarlett's optimistic epitaph – "after all, tomorrow is another day!" – implying that she may eventually win Rhett back, or, at least, that she'll never stop trying. Whether I want her to succeed is an entirely different matter. Scarlett is almost the female equivalent of Tim Holt's George Amberson-Minafer, arrogant and thoroughly deserving of a comeuppance, and neither deserved a happy ending, regardless of whether or not the studio provided one.

Currently my #4 film of 1939:
1) Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (Frank Capra)
2) Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks)
3) The Wizard Of Oz (Victor Fleming, Mervyn LeRoy, Richard Thorpe, King Vidor)
4) Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, George Cukor, Sam Wood)
5) The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle)

12th Academy Awards, 1940:

* Best Picture (win)
* Best Director - Victor Fleming (win)
* Best Actress in a Leading Role - Vivien Leigh (win)
* Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Hattie McDaniel (win)
* Best Art Direction - Lyle R. Wheeler (win)
* Best Cinematography, Colour - Ernest Haller, Ray Rennahan (win)
* Best Film Editing - Hal C. Kern, James E. Newcom (win)
* Best Writing, Screenplay - Sidney Howard (win)
* Best Actor in a Leading Role - Clark Gable (nomination)
* Best Actress in a Supporting Role - Olivia de Havilland (nomination)
* Best Effects, Special Effects - Jack Cosgrove (photographic), Fred Albin (sound), Arthur Johns (sound) (nomination)
* Best Music, Original Score - Max Steiner (nomination)
* Best Sound, Recording - Thomas T. Moulton (Samuel Goldwyn SSD) (nomination)
* Technical Achievement Award: R.D. Musgrave - For pioneering in the use of coordinated equipment in the production Gone with the Wind.
* Honorary Award: William Cameron Menzies - For outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood in the production of Gone with the Wind (plaque).

National Film Preservation Board, USA:
* Selected for National Film Registry, 1989

AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies:
* Ranked #4 in 1998.
* Ranked #6 in 2007.
* Ranked #2 in 100 Years... 100 Passions in 2002.

What others have said:

"The film is constantly magnificent to look upon. In two parts, its first is by far the more arresting and, as such, outdistances the second considerably and definitely tends to emphasize the overlength of the final portion. As it stands, however, this is a significant and magnificent enterprise."
Boxoffice Magazine, December 23, 1939

"If the central drama of Gone with the Wind is the rise and fall of a sexual adventuress, the counterpoint is a slanted but passionate view of the Old South. Unlike most historical epics, Gone with the Wind has a genuine sweep, a convincing feel for the passage of time. It shows the South before, during and after the war, all seen through Scarlett's eyes. And Scarlett is a Southerner. So was Margaret Mitchell. The movie signals its values in the printed narration that opens the film, in language that seems astonishing in its bland, unquestioned assumptions"
Roger Ebert, June 21, 1998.

"Perhaps 1939 was the latest that Hollywood could get away with such a generous evocation of the Old South: a world of elegant gentlemen, comely ladies and smiling slaves. This is a world the movie indulges on the tragic and romantic basis that it was destroyed by a hubristic secessionist war and swept away by the wind of history. But the film actually offers a ringing tribute to the south's survival in spirit, embodied in the resilient belle, Scarlett O'Hara - a magnificent performance from Vivien Leigh - and Clark Gable's bound-ah Rhett Butler whose legendary indifference gave us that classic quote."
Peter Bradshaw, 2004.

"Selznick was intelligent enough to see that success depended on a sober acceptance of the popular notion that Gone with the Wind was a serious, important work. But there were many in the town then who could have managed that just as uncynically as he did. And some of them were capable of making movies that were what GWTW never was -- deep-down fun. On the whole I guess I wish that someone like Cecil B. De Mille had taken it on -- no "taste," plenty of action and operatic emotion. But it's not important, unless you're writing a social history of Hollywood. Or a commercial history. Gone With the Wind simply has nothing to do with that other, more important kind of history -- the history of art."
Richard Schickel, 1973


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Target #215: Kiss Me Deadly (1955, Robert Aldrich)

TSPDT placing: #265
Directed by: Robert Aldrich
Written by: Mickey Spillane (novel), A.I. Bezzerides (writer)
Starring: Ralph Meeker, Albert Dekker, Paul Stewart, Marian Carr, Maxine Cooper, Cloris Leachman

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

Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955) opens with one of the most captivating sequences I've seen in a long while. Dispensing with the credits until a later date, when they scroll slanted and backwards across the screen, the film fades directly into a pair of naked feet fleeing along a roadway, the soundtrack dominated by her amplified breathing and panting, the flicker of passing automobile headlights briefly illuminating her anguished facial features. A passing motorist swerves to avoid the barely-clothed woman, skidding dangerously onto the gravel, and the disgruntled driver, private investigator Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), reluctantly offers her a ride. The credits roll over images of the road ahead, filmed from the backseat of Hammer's convertible, to the soundtrack of Nat King Cole's "Rather Have the Blues" on the radio, the mysterious woman's sobbing and breathing still disconcertingly audible. I was immediately transfixed by Aldrich's directing style - gritty, mean, and yet still very professional - and, had the film maintained this tone for the entirety of its running time, I would have proclaimed Kiss Me Deadly to be no less than a masterpiece.

It doesn't take long, however, for the film to fall into the familiar trappings of a pulp detective novel, not unlike your typical Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett adaptation. This isn't necessarily a damaging characteristic, and the film very much retains its ability to thrill and entertain, but it loses the raw grittiness that, stylistically, made the prologue sequence so damn gripping. The remainder of the story, creatively adapted from a novel by Mickey Spillane, interestingly blends two distinct genres: on the one hand, it's a hard-boiled pulp detective story, complete with a hard-edged private investigator, seedy villains and a scheming femme fatale. On the other hand, it's a science-fiction off-shoot of the Cold War, with a destructive, possibly-nuclear Macguffin for which the film's characters are quite willing to kill. Ralph Meeker is ideally-cast as Mike Hammer, a wry, stubborn and selfish detective whose inability to cooperate with the unsympathetic authorities can only lead to apocalypse. The screenplay by A.I. Bezzerides, like many noirs, carries a streak of misogyny, with even the innocent girls (including Maxine Cooper and Cloris Leachman) being neglected and abused at every turn.

Kiss Me Deadly is also interesting in that the filmmakers have obviously become very aware of typical film noir conventions, and the inclusion of the mysterious Pandora's Box - knowingly referred to as "the great whatsit" - is a deliberate satire of what Alfred Hitchcock had called the MacGuffin, a plot device that motivates the film's characters, but the details of which are of little or no importance. The influence of this device can be seen in numerous subsequent pictures, from the opening of the Ark of the Covenant in Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) to the mysterious glowing briefcase in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994). The DVD release of Kiss Me Deadly includes the film's restored original ending, in which Hammer and Velda escape into the crashing waves, their futures nonetheless still uncertain, as the apocalyptic nuclear device destroys the seaside cottage in a blinding mushroom cloud. I much preferred it to the abrupt, truncated ending that had previously been present in most prints, and Aldrich himself confirmed that he had no part in the somewhat-crude chopping of his film's conclusion.

Currently my #4 film of 1955:
1) Du rififi chez les hommes {Rififi} (Jules Dassin
2) The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick)
3) Bad Day at Black Rock (John Sturges)
4) Kiss Me Deadly (Robert Aldrich)
5) Nuit et brouillard {Night and Fog} (Alain Resnais)
6) Les Diaboliques (Henri-Georges Clouzot)
7) Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray)
8) The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton)
9) The Trouble with Harry (Alfred Hitchcock)
10) Killer’s Kiss (Stanley Kubrick)

National Film Preservation Board, USA:
* Selected for National Film Registry, 1999

What others have said:

"Kiss Me Deadly really didn't resurface in the cinema consciousness until the early 1970s when the French term film noir broke into American film journals. It suddenly appeared in a pantheon of top titles that included Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, Touch of Evil and Out of the Past. Previously ignored as an irrelevant addendum to Mickey Spillane's culturally abhorred world of tough guy pulp fiction, Robert Aldrich and screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides' film was heralded as an extreme expression of protest against 1950s conformist complacency. It subverted Spillane by criticizing his brutal avenger Mike Hammer as greedy, narcissistic and infantile."
Glenn Erickson - Noir of the Week, 2007

"It's a thrilling ride through the criminal dregs and overlords of 50s Los Angeles. Even the period detail - from one-piece bathing suits to an enormous, wall-mounted reel-to-reel answer machine - is a joy. But this movie stands, unequivocally, on its merits. Masterful accumulation of tension is accompanied by a smouldering performance from Maxine Cooper as Hammer's assistant and lover, Velda. Ralph Meeker is electric in his understated portrayal of Hammer, the calculating anti-hero; who knows why he never really hit the big time?"
David Mattin - BBC Movies, 2006

"Producer/director Aldrich's brutal, fast action, paranoid film with a series of disconnected scenes, was based upon pulp fiction writer Mickey Spillane's 1952 sensationalist detective best-seller of the same name... The film is a low-budget, B-grade film (at a cost of about $400,000) without recognizable actors. As a counterpoint to the hard-boiled film, cultural allusions abound: the Christina Rossetti poem "Remember," and a Caruso vocal recording - to name a few. Its posters heralded: BLOOD-RED KISSES, WHITE-HOT THRILLS!... Kiss Me Deadly is rich with symbolic allusions, labyrinthine and complex plot threads, and Cold War fear and nuclear paranoia about the atomic bomb. The film, shot over a one month period in late 1954, is a masterpiece of cinematography, exhibited in the disorienting camera angles and unique and unconventional compositions of Ernest Laszlo. It has all the elements of great film noir - a stark opening sequence, destructive femme fatales, low-life cheap gangsters, an anti-hero, expressionistically-lit night-time scenes, a vengeful quest, and a dark mood of hopelessness."
Tim Dirks - Filmsite

Other classic film noir:

"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."

"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... 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."

"One might suggest that Welles did everything possible to ensure that The Lady from Shanghai (1947) would fail at the box-office: he filled the screen with bizarre, unlikable characters, and effectively diluted the star-appeal of then-wife Rita Hayworth by shearing and dyeing her famous red hair... The film's climax is absolutely unforgettable, a gripping and innovative shoot-out in a carnival house of mirrors. As each character blasts away at illusory images of their enemies, the bullets shatter their own reflected profiles, fulfilling Michael's foreshadowing anecdote that compares Elsa (Hayworth) and Arthur (Everett Sloane) to sharks gnawing feverishly at their own flesh."


Target #214: Blowup (1966, Michelangelo Antonioni)

TSPDT placing: #206
Directed by: Michelangelo Antonioni
Written by: Julio Cortázar (short story), Michelangelo Antonioni (story), Michelangelo Antonioni (screenplay), Tonino Guerra (screenplay), Edward Bond (English dialogue)
Starring: David Hemmings, Vanessa Redgrave, Sarah Miles, John Castle, Jane Birkin, Gillian Hills, Peter Bowles, Veruschka

WARNING: Major plot and/or ending details may follow!!!

I once heard Blowup (1966) described as the only film whose entire meaning changes completely if the final ten seconds are removed. I was understandably rather skeptical about this assertion, but no longer. I was watching the film, had already made my conclusions about what Michelangelo Antonioni was trying to say on the nature of reality…and then came the final ten seconds. Everything I thought I'd learned for the film suddenly came crashing down. How can the simple sounds of a tennis match have triggered such an extraordinary shift in my perception of the film? The story concerns a bored, superficial professional photographer, Thomas (David Hemmings), who unknowingly takes peaceful park photographs that apparently reveal, under extremely close inspection, a murder in the happening. The film bares stylistic similarities to Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), albeit with a more obscure narrative, and is also reminiscent of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom (1960). Also notable is the film's influence on later pictures, particularly Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation (1974) and Brian De Palma's homage, Blow Out (1981).

By the mid-1960s, Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni had already achieved great success with films such as L'avventura (1960) and L'eclisse (1962). When producer Carlos Ponti offered him a three-picture contract with MGM, to direct English-language films with complete artistic freedom, he saw an opportunity to expand his success into the international market, and Blowup was the first of the films released under this contract {it was followed by Zabriskie Point (1970) and The Passenger (1975)}. But Antonioni was not to compromise his artistic integrity for the sake of commercial success; his film is a beguiling meditation on the nature of reality, perception and illusion. It's a murder mystery stripped of its procedure, resolution, and, indeed, stripped of the murder itself… was there even a murder? Despite these challenging themes, the film proved a tidy box-office success, perhaps in no small part due to its audacious depiction of sexuality, and the bizarre fashion styles of the swingin' 1960s are forever encapsulated through the director's lens.

Returning to what I discussed earlier, how could my interpretation of the film's themes alter so radically over a period of seconds? Previously, the element of Blowup that struck me most compellingly was how the camera was able to capture moments of reality that Thomas' senses were incapable of perceiving - the armed gunman in the bushes, the body in the grass. My understanding was that the photograph represents an objective perspective of the world. Whereas the senses can be distracted and misdirected, the photograph captures what is the truth. Thomas never saw the murder, and never saw any traces of its taking place (barring his later "discovery" of the body itself), but the camera saw everything. Then, of course, came the ending, and I was suddenly struck by the realisation that I'd been interpreting everything in completely the wrong way. The photograph isn't objective at all - it merely reflects the subjectivity of the person viewing it. Thomas saw the gunman and the dead body in the photograph precisely because he wanted to see them there!

In these moments, a Hitchcockian murder plot instantly transformed into something much more cerebral, baffling and intriguing. The opening thirty minutes, in which seemingly nothing of any relevance takes place, is crucial in the development of Thomas' character, and suggests a possible reason for his elaborate murder fabrication (if, of course, it was merely a fabrication). As he goes through the motions of his day, treating fashion models with complete and utter disdain punctuated by sporadic moments of almost sexually-charged exaltation, Thomas quickly loses interest in whatever task is at hand. He's bored, and craves for any incident that might challenge his craft… a nice murder mystery, for example. The 1960s London setting provides a perfect social context for the film's events - society is depraved, superficial and obsessed with youth and appearance; given that many of the film's characters also utilise mind-altering narcotics, it's hardly surprising that the senses are not to be trusted in interpreting reality.

Currently my #1 film of 1966:
1) Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni)
2) La Battaglia di Algeri {The Battle of Algiers} (Gillo Pontecorvo)
3) Il Buono, Il Brutto, Il Cattivo {The Good, the Bad and the Ugly} (Sergio Leone)
4) The Fortune Cookie (Billy Wilder)
5) Persona (Ingmar Bergman)

39th Academy Awards, 1967:
* Best Director - Michelangelo Antonioni (nomination)
* Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Michelangelo Antonioni, Tonino Guerra, Edward Bond (nomination)

BAFTA Awards, 1968:
* Best British Art Direction (Colour) - Assheton Gorton (nomination)
* Best British Cinematography (Colour) - Carlo Di Palma (nomination)
* Best British Film - Michelangelo Antonioni (nomination)

Cannes Film Festival, 1967:
* Palm d'Or - Michelangelo Antonioni (win)

British Film Institute Top 100 British Films, 1999:
* #60 placing

What others have said:

"Watching "Blowup" once again, I took a few minutes to acclimate myself to the loopy psychedelic colors and the tendency of the hero to use words like "fab" ("Austin Powers" brilliantly lampoons the era). Then I found the spell of the movie settling around me. Antonioni uses the materials of a suspense thriller without the payoff. He places them within a London of heartless fashion photography, groupies, bored rock audiences, languid pot parties, and a hero whose dead soul is roused briefly by a challenge to his craftsmanship."
Roger Ebert November 8, 1998.

"When the film came out, Michelangelo Antonioni's mixture of suspense with vagueness and confusion seemed to have a numbing fascination for some people which they associated with art and intellectuality. He conducts a leisurely tour of "swinging" London, lingering over the flashiest routes and dawdling over a pot party and a mini-orgy, while ponderously suggesting that the mod scene represents a condition of spiritual malaise in which people live only for the sensations of the moment. Yet despite Antonioni's negativism, the world he presents looks harmless, and sex without "connecting" doesn't really seem so bad. The best part of the movie is an ingeniously edited sequence in which the fashion-photographer hero (David Hemmings) blows up a series of photographs and discovers that he has inadvertently photographed a murder. "
Pauline Kael

"Michelangelo Antonioni's sexy art-house hit of 1966, which played a substantial role in putting "swinging London" on the map, follows a day in the life of a young fashion photographer (David Hemmings) who discovers, after blowing up his photos of a couple glimpsed in a park, that he may have inadvertently uncovered a murder. Part erotic thriller..., part exotic travelogue..., this is so ravishing to look at (the colors all seem newly minted) and pleasurable to follow (the enigmas are usually more teasing than worrying) that you're likely to excuse the metaphysical pretensions--which become prevalent only at the very end--and go with the 60s flow, just as the original audiences did."
Jonathan Rosenbaum


Monday, June 23, 2008

Target #213: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, F.W. Murnau)

TSPDT placing: #10
Directed by: F.W. Murnau
Written by: Hermann Sudermann (novella), Carl Mayer (scenario), Katherine Hilliker, H.H. Caldwell (titles)
Starring: George O'Brien, Janet Gaynor, Margaret Livingston, Bodil Rosing, J. Farrell MacDonald, Ralph Sipperly

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

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) is simply one of the most breathtaking motion pictures of the silent era, and certainly one of the most effective to have originated in Hollywood. However, the film's creative talent arrived from overseas, when William Fox, founder of the Fox Films Corporation, lured prominent German director F.W. Murnau over to the United States with the promise of a greater budget and complete artistic freedom. Murnau, who had previously brought German Expressionism to its creative peak with Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (1922) and Faust - Eine deutsche Volkssage (1926), spared no expense at his new American studio, and the result is quite possibly his most extraordinary storytelling achievement, blending reality and fantasy into a wonderfully-balanced melodramatic fable of love and redemption. Though inevitably overshadowed by the arrival of "talkies" with The Jazz Singer (1927), the film was also the first to utilize the Fox Movietone sound-on-film system, which allowed the inclusion of roughly-synchronised music, sound effects and a few garbled voices.

Just as he did in Der letzte Mann (1924), Murnau makes sparing use of intertitles, and so the film relies heavily on visuals in order to propel the story and invoke the desired mood. During his mercilessly short-lived career, the German director subscribed to two distinct film-making styles: German Expressionism, which deliberately exaggerated geometry and lighting for symbolic purposes, and the short-lived Kammerspiel ("chamber-drama") genre, most readily noticed in The Last Laugh, which bordered on neo-realistic at times, but also pioneered the moving camera in order to capture the intimacy of a character's point-of-view. Sunrise appears to have been influenced by both styles. The fable of The Man (George O'Brien) and The Wife (Janet Gaynor), its time and place purposefully vague, fittingly takes place in a plane of reality not quite aligned with our own, without straying too perceptibly into the realm of fantasy. Murnau also had mammoth sets created for the city sequences, fantastically stylised and exaggerated to re-enforce the picture's fairytale ambiance.

The characters in Sunrise are best viewed as representatives of archetypes, performing a very specific function in Murnau's moral parable. The story's primary themes are forgiveness and redemption. The Man, a misguided fool torn between two lovers, is driven to the brink of murder, but manages to stop himself at the final moment. The remainder of the film involves The Man's attempts at, not only understanding the gravity of what might have been, but also to recall his former love for his wife. I can't imagine what camera filters must have been used to transform Janet Gaynor into the supreme personification of innocence and vulnerability, but she is the most heartbreakingly-helpless figure since Lillian Gish in Broken Blossoms (1919). Even so, for the bulk of the film, the power to reconcile their estranged marriage lies solely within the hands of The Wife, whose role in the story is to recognise the remorse of her husband, and, in accordance with their sacred wedding vows, to forgive him his shameful transgressions.

The development of the moving camera was a crucial step towards the dynamic style of cinema that we now enjoy. Though the first notable use of the technique was in The Last Laugh, and Murnau is said to have used it even earlier, some of the sequences in Sunrise are simply beyond words in their gracefulness and beauty. In easily the most memorable long-take of the film, and perhaps even the decade, Karl Struss and Charles Rosher's camera sweeps behind The Man as he makes his way through the moon-lit scrub-land, before overtaking him, passing through a swathe of tree branches and arriving at The Women From the City (Margaret Livingston), who applies her make-up and waits for the married suitor whom she is about to convince to murder his wife. I first caught a split-second glimpse of this wonderful shot in Chuck Workman's montage short, Precious Images (1986), and it's a telling sign that, of all the four hundred or so movies briefly exhibited in that film, it was this one that caught my eye.

Currently my #2 film of 1927:
1) Metropolis (Fritz Lang)
2) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (F.W. Murnau)
3) The General (Clyde Bruckman, Buster Keaton)
4) College (James W. Horne, Buster Keaton
5) The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock)

Currently my #1 film from director F.W. Murnau:
1) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927)
2) Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens {Nosferatu} (1922)
3) Faust - Eine deutsche Volkssage {Faust} (1926)
4) Der Letzte Mann {The Last Laugh} (1924)
5) Herr Tartüff {Tartuffe} (1926)

Currently my #8 silent film:
1) Modern Times (1936, Charles Chaplin)
2) Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari. {The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari} (1920, Robert Wiene)
3) Metropolis (1927, Fritz Lang)
4) Frau im Mond {Woman in the Moon} (1929, Fritz Lang)
5) Körkarlen {The Phantom Chariot} (1921, Victor Sjöström)
6) City Lights (1931, Charles Chaplin)
7) Sherlock Jr. (1924, Buster Keaton)
8) Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927, F.W. Murnau)
9) Bronenosets Potyomkin {The Battleship Potemkin} (1925, Sergei M. Eisenstein)
10) Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens {Nosferatu} (1922, F.W. Murnau)

1st Academy Awards, 1929:
* Best Picture, Unique and Artistic Production (win)
* Best Cinematography - Charles Rosher, Karl Struss (win)
* Best Actress in a Leading Role - Janet Gaynor (also for Seventh Heaven (1927) and Street Angel (1928)) (win)
* Best Art Direction - Rochus Gliese (nomination)

National Film Preservation Board, USA:
* Selected for National Film Registry, 1989

Extracts from reviews of other Murnau pictures:

"To fans of early horror, director F.W. Murnau is best known for Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens, his chilling 1922 vampire film, inspired by Bram Stoker's famous novel. However, his equally impressive Faust (1926) is often overlooked, despite some remarkable visuals, solid acting, a truly sinister villain, and an epic tale of love, loss and evil... Relying very heavily on visuals, 'Faust' contains some truly stunning on screen imagery, most memorably the inspired shot of Mephisto towering ominously over a town, preparing to sow the seeds of the Black Death. A combination of clever optical trickery and vibrant costumes and sets makes the film an absolute delight to watch, with Murnau employing every known element – fire, wind, smoke, lightning – to help produce the film's dark tone. Double exposure is used extremely effectively, being an integral component in many of the visual effects shots."

"Frequent collaborator Emil Jannings is undoubtedly the star of The Last Laugh (1924), occupying almost the entire screen time, and playing the character about whom the story revolves. Performing with a passion that transcends the technical boundaries of the silent film, Jannings gives a truly heart-breaking performance that is worth the price of admission alone... I found myself likening the style to that of the Italin neo-realism movement, if only for showing an average, not-particularly-important man overwhelmed by the cruelty of upper-class society. However, several scenes diverge from this mould, most specifically a dizzying, wondrous dream sequence, and a tacked-on optimistic ending imposed by the commercially-insecure studio. Though it was not the first film to exploit a moving camera, I've rarely seen a silent film making better use of the technique."

"Herr Tartüff / Tartuffe (1925) was apparently forced upon Murnau by contractual obligations with Universum Film (UFA), and you suspect that perhaps his heart wasn't quite in it, but the end result nonetheless remains essential viewing, as are all the director's films... The tale of Tartuffe himself is worth watching for its technical accomplishments, even if the story itself seems somewhat generic and uninteresting. Most astounding is Murnau's exceptional use of lighting {assisted, of course, by cinematographer Karl Freund}, and, in many cases, entire rooms are seemingly being illuminated only by candlelight... Jannings predictably gives the finest performance, playing the unsavoury title character with a mixture of sly arrogance and lustful repugnance; nevertheless, the role falls far short of the silent actor's greatest performances..."


Saturday, June 21, 2008

Target #212: The Party (1968, Blake Edwards)

TSPDT placing: #671
Directed by: Blake Edwards
Written by: Blake Edwards (story, screenplay), Tom Waldman (screenplay), Frank Waldman (screenplay)
Starring: Peter Sellers, Claudine Longet, Steve Franken, Herbert Ellis, Gavin MacLeod, Denny Miller

I don't consider the 1960s to have been a great decade for comedy. Aside from Stanley Kubrick's Cold War farce Dr. Strangelove… (1964), Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night (1964) and the various works of the great Billy Wilder, most of the comedy I've seen from this era has been over-stylish, dated and rather campy. Take, for example, the second Beatles movie, Help! (1965), which deviated so far from the intelligent wit of the first film that I could only stare in a mixture of horror and disbelief (at least the soundtrack was enjoyable). Blake Edwards' The Pink Panther (1963) was my first film from the director, and, though Peter Sellers was, of course, hilarious as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau, the film itself was a very uneven affair. So I must confess that I approached The Party (1968) with some trepidation. The theatrical trailer screamed "1960s!" at the top of its voice, and I deduced that the film would be considerably hampered by an out-dated style that diluted whatever comedy there had once been. Perhaps low expectations are a good thing to have, since I instead found myself pleasantly surprised.

Peter Sellers is often held to be among cinema's most accomplished comedians, and I can see no reason why this should not be the case. He was an extraordinary chameleon when the role called for it, and no actor ever milked so many laughs from his manipulation of cultural stereotypes, whether that be his fascist German from Dr. Strangelove…, his bumbling Frenchman from The Pink Panther, his vocabulary-challenged Chinese detective from Murder by Death (1976) or his good-natured Indian from this film. Of course, it takes a few moments for you to accept such a well-known actor as playing an Indian, but, by the film's end, it doesn't seem unusual in the slightest. Sellers plays Hrundi V. Bakshi as an affable and friendly outsider, completely out-of-his-depth at such an upper-class get-together. Despite his occasionally tendency to be rather clumsy, he eventually earns the respect of the other party-goers, especially beautiful actress Michele Monet (Claudine Longet), through his kindness and indomitable sense of fun.

The Party was largely improvised from a rudimentary 56-60 page screenplay, and it really does show. There is nothing exceptional about the dialogue, and, though Bakshi gets one or two memorable catch-phrases ("Birdie Num Num!"), the bulk of the humour is purely visual. There was always going to be a risk in extending a single party throughout a 99-minute running-time, and the end result is rather interesting. Between gags, particularly during the dinner sequence, there is a curious sense of vacuousness, and Edwards indulges in an extended period of idleness that no comedy director today would ever be bold enough to leave intact. In one way, this approach is somewhat reassuring; the director is obviously completely comfortable with what he is doing. On the other hand, you wonder if the story is merely stalling itself, in order to consume enough celluloid to make a respectable feature-length. In any case, despite my adverse expectations, The Party turned out to be an adequately funny and even touching comedy, in no small part due to the magnificent talents of its leading man…whatever nationality he might be.

Currently my #4 film from 1968:
1) 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)
2) Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanksi)
3) Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero)
4) The Party (Blake Edwards)


Thursday, June 19, 2008

My Ten Greatest Animated Short Films:

Animation, perhaps even more than its live-action counterpart, has the incredible ability to draw a viewer entirely into its world, to construct a completely new dimension of reality. Everything you see onscreen is the product of the animators' imaginations, every subtle stroke purposefully conceived and painstakingly brought into existence.
Below I've assembled my top ten animated short films of all time. In order to maintain a good variety, I've deliberately included only one film from each director, though additional recommendations are also included for animators whose other work is equally unmissable. Despite my attempts to keep the choices as diversified as possible, a quick browse reveals a ridiculously-evident bias towards the United States and the Soviet Union. I'd like to venture into some Asian animated short films when I get the chance, so, if you've got any recommendations for me, be sure to leave a comment.

Additionally, so that my readers may also enjoy my ten favourite animated shorts, I've included YouTube videos of each of my top ten films (where available). Just click the Read More... button at the bottom of this post.
Now let's get to the countdown:

10) Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora {The Cameraman's Revenge}
Year: 1912; Director: Wladyslaw Starewicz; Country: Russia

An absurdly-hilarious and strikingly-human tale of the jealousies and infidelities surrounding a beetle marriage, Russian animation pioneer Wladyslaw Starewicz's The Cameraman's Revenge is a delight of early animation, brimming with highly-effective stop-motion puppetry and no shortage of imagination.
Mr. and Mrs. Beetle have a completely uneventful marriage, and both yearn for more excitement in their lives. Mr. Beetle's desires can only be satisfied by the beautiful exotic dancer at the "Gay Dragonfly" night club, whom he visits whenever he takes a "business trip" to the city. A fellow admirer of this dancer, an aggressive grasshopper, is jealous that Mr. Beetle has stolen his lady and, as fate would have it, he is also a movie cameraman. The devious grasshopper follows Mr. Beetle and his acquaintance to a hotel room, where he films their exploits through the keyhole.
Also recommended from Wladyslaw Starewicz: The Insects’ Christmas (1913)

9) Frank Film
Year: 1973; Director: Caroline Mouris, Frank Mouris; Country: USA

When it comes to experimental film-making, I am the worst possible critic. Where others see great beauty and vision, I see pretension and uselessness. Frank Film is my inevitable exception. Over a five-year period, the directors collected a vast volume of magazine clippings, and these are used to animate the visuals. There are two soundtracks: in the first, Frank Mouris continually lists a number of seemingly-random words, and in the second he delivers a personal synopsis of his own life, touching on everything from school-life as a child to his career-choices in college.
These two soundtracks play simultaneously, sometimes cutting over each other and occasionally seeming to merge into a single entity. The animation works like an endless stream of the subconscious. As Frank's meandering autobiography turns its attention towards a particular topic, the visuals unleash a gush of related images. For example, as he discusses his endless love for food, we witness a collage of culinary images, each merging into the other, the memory of ten thousand past meals. This is what I like about Frank Film; it is a film that successfully connects with the way that the human memory works, a stream of long-forgotten recollections brought forth by a simple subliminal trigger.

8) Zhil-byl pyos {There was a Dog}
Year: 1981; Director: Eduard Nazarov; Country: Soviet Union

Eduard Nazarov's Zhil-byl pyos is based upon a classic Ukrainian fairytale that told of a dog making friends with a wolf, re-enforcing the age-old wisdom that good is always rewarded by good. When the clumsy and lazy domestic dog (voiced by Georgi Burkov) is banished from his home after neglecting to stop a burglar, he depressingly retreats into the forest and seems as though he is about to hang himself.
However, a wheezy old wolf (Armen Dzhigarkhanyan) manages to talk him out of it, and he offers the dog his assistance in reclaiming the love of his family. The following winter, the dog, long ago returned to his home, hears the mournful howls of the wolf, and he follows the sound. He finds the wolf huddled cold, weak and hungry amidst the snow, and so sets about returning the favour that had saved his life previously.

7) Suur Tõll {Toell the Great}
Year: 1980; Director: Rein Raamat; Country: Soviet Union

If you’ve ever felt that animated films were designed solely for the enjoyment of children, then you must seek out Suur Tõll, undoubtedly one of the most unusual animated shorts you will ever see. The story was based on an Estonian folk tale about the gigantic hero, Tõll, who lived on the island of Saaremaa (Oesel) in the Baltic Sea. The imagery of Suur Tõll is completely and utterly unique, and I've never seen anything in its style before.
There is perhaps nothing technically amazing about the animation itself, but it is presented in such a bizarre form that you must really see to understand. It's difficult to explain, but the images really do give the feeling of epic mythology; a world not quite grounded in reality, and yet strangely entrenched in history. The soundtrack to the film is majestic, compelling and haunting, with the booming chanting of the men often sending a shiver down the spine.

6) Feed the Kitty
Year: 1952; Director: Chuck Jones; Country: USA

It’s no easy task to pick out a favourite from the extensive catalogue of animation great Chuck Jones, but this one has always struck me as his most emotionally-involving. Feed the Kitty was the first to feature two of Jones' lesser-known characters – the loving bulldog Marc Antony and the cute little kitten named Pussyfoot.
Following a somewhat frictional introduction, the unlikely pair get into all sorts of adventures, particularly when Marc Antony believes his feline friend to have been accidentally blended and baked into cookies by his mistress. The final minutes of the film are very touching, as an anguished Marc Antony watches the blending through blood-shot eyes, the slightest peek causing him to faint on the spot.
Also recommended from Chuck Jones: One Froggy Evening (1955); Duck Amuck (1953); What’s Opera, Doc? (1957)

5) The Tell-Tale Heart
Year: 1953; Director: Ted Parmalee; Country: USA

Parmelee's 8-minute cartoon adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's short story is a faithful, stylish, atmospheric, genuinely-unsettling feat of clever animation, creepy sound effects and an excellent voice-over by James Mason. It tells the story of an insane man who murders his elderly landlord because of his "strange eye" and is driven to madness by the continual hideous beating of the dead man's heart. We never actually see the madman's face, restricted to glimpsing his shadow on the floor and his dirty, gnarled hands. The audience witnesses the events through the warped mind of the murderer, with even ordinary events and objects taking on a surrealistic, twisted, terrifying light.

4) Geri’s Game
Year: 1997; Director: Jan Pinkava; Country: USA

There seems to be little remarkable about this four-minute short film from Pixar Studios, in which a senile old man keeps entertained by challenging himself to a game of chess. However, it’s such an incredibly efficient production, presenting its simple but clever premise without the burden of additional sub-plots that would only distract from the two wonderful characters at the film’s heart. I say two characters, but, of course, they are one and the same, and a significant part of the short’s genius is how, in such a limited stretch of time, Jan Pinkava is able to develop each of the old man’s conflicting personalities into fully-fledged personas.
Also recommended from Pixar Studios: For the Birds (2000); Lifted (2006).

3) The Old Man and the Sea
Year: 1999; Director: Aleksandr Petrov; Country: Russia-Canada-Japan

Based on Ernest Hemingway's 1952 novella of the same name, Aleksandr Petrov's The Old Man and the Sea is a masterpiece, taking a classic story and offering it a beauty that only Petrov could accomplish. Completed over two and a half years, the film was created using paint-on-glass animation, a technique which uses slow-drying pastel oil paints on glass sheets. Running for approximately 20 minutes, the film is comprised of more than 29,000 paintings, each frame a veritable work of art.
The film traces the fortunes of an old man named Santiago, who has had a proud, adventure-filled life, and now whittles away his days fishing alone on the ocean, usually without catching anything. On this particular fishing trip, Santiago comes up against a magnificent marlin, which takes the bait but refuses to give in. The old man feels that, despite he and the fish being brothers, it is his duty to kill the marlin, and only in doing so can he prove his worth.
Also recommended from Aleksandr Petrov: My Love (2006); Cow (1989).

2) The Old Mill
Year: 1937; Director: Wilfred Jackson; Country: USA

This Silly Symphonies short from Walt Disney was essentially a testing-ground for many of the techniques to be used in the upcoming feature-length milestone, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Artists experimented with the animation of animals, rain, wind, lightning, ripples, splashes and reflection, and also debuted Disney’s revolutionary multiplane camera.
Interestingly, that The Old Mill was basically a trial-run perhaps contributed to its greatness, as, unburdened by any notion of a solid narrative, the film allows the viewer to simply sit back and lose themselves in the atmosphere of nature scene. The loose plot concerns the wildlife inhabitants of an old mill situated in an isolated swamp, whose quiet night is suddenly violently interrupted by a terrifying and immensely-powerful storm that threatens to tear their home apart.
Also recommended from the Silly Symphonies series: The Skeleton Dance (1929); Flowers and Trees (1932); The Three Little Pigs (1933).

1) Skazka skazok {Tale of Tales}
Year: 1979; Director: Yuriy Norshteyn; Country: Soviet Union

I’ve raved about this film before, and a recent repeat viewing only strengthened by belief that Yuriy Norshteyn is the finest animator ever to have tread the Earth. Voted as the greatest animated film of all time by the Animation Olympiad in 1984, Tale of Tales is a triumph of heartbreaking animation and emotion.
The 30-minute film is comprised of a series of related sequences, each deeply rooted in the history of the Soviet Union, meticulously evoking a time and place that the filmmaker recalled from his own childhood. A haunting visual poem, presented in the fractured manner of a dream, Norshteyn uses various recurring characters – the little girl playing jump-rope with he disheartened bull, the young boy feeding apples to the crows, the suckling baby, the little grey wolf (voiced by Aleksandr Kalyagin) – to recreate the images, sounds and, indeed, even the scents of a saddening chapter in a nation’s history.
Also recommended from Yuriy Norshteyn: Hedgehog in the Fog (1975); The Heron and the Crane (1974); The Fox and the Hare (1973)

Remember: click Read More... below if you'd like to see any (or all) of the films of Youtube. Hopefully they're all still accessible. For my #1 choice, it is a necessity that you see the film at night, in a dark room with no interruptions.
Now that I've laid down the ground-rules, enjoy!

10) Mest kinematograficheskogo operatora {The Cameraman's Revenge}:

9) Frank Film:

8) Zhil-byl pyos {There was a Dog}:
(no subtitles, but my plot description should be enough to get you through it)

7) Suur Tõll {Toell the Great}

Part one:

Part two:

6) Feed the Kitty:

5) The Tell-tale Heart:

4) Geri's Game:

3) The Old Man and the Sea:

Part one:

Part two:

2) The Old Mill:

1) Tale of Tales

Part one:

Part two:

Part three:


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Repeat Viewing: Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)

TSPDT placing: #20
Directed by: Michael Curtiz
Written by: Murray Burnett (play), Joan Alison (play), Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch, Casey Robinson (uncredited)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Dooley Wilson, Joy Page

You’re saying this only to make me go.

I’m saying it because it’s true.
Inside of us we both know you
belong with Victor. You’re part
of his work, the thing that keeps
him going. If that plane leaves
the ground and you’re not with
him, you’ll regret it.


Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow,
but soon, and for the rest of your
But what about us?
We’ll always have Paris. We didn’t
have, we’d lost it, until you came
to Casablanca. We got it back last
And I said I would never leave you.
And you never will. But I’ve got
a job to do, too. Where I’m going
you can’t follow. What I’ve got to
do you can’t be a part of. Ilsa,
I’m no good at being noble, but it
doesn’t take much to see that the
problems of three little people
don’t amount to a hill of beans in
this crazy world. Someday you’ll
understand that. Now, now…
Ilsa’s eyes well up with tears. Rick puts his hand to her chin
and raises her face to meet his own.
Here’s looking at you, kid.
Ah, Casablanca. What other film can evoke such powerful feelings of nostalgia, can exemplify so completely the golden period of Hollywood film-making? The year was 1942, and the world found itself in the midst of the bloodiest conflict in modern history. Unlike anything our generation could possibly imagine, citizens were faced with an incredible uncertainty about their future. The Nazis marched across Europe, an astonishing, seemingly-unstoppable enemy, and the United States watched with bated breath from across the Atlantic. Most Hollywood productions responded to such ambiguity with fully-fledged, unabashed patriotism, and war-time filmmakers became obsessed with validating audiences' beliefs that the Allied forces would inevitably win out against Germany, and, indeed, many often concluded their pictures with unnecessary epilogues in which we've apparently already won. Such propaganda, while no doubt ensuring commercial success from war-weary cinema-goers, has regularly tarnished and outdated even the most otherwise-impressive contemporary WWII pictures, as the directors' willingness to simulate a happy ending strikes distinctly false from an era in which the overwhelming atmosphere was that of uncertainty and insecurity {see Billy Wilder's Five Graves to Cairo (1943)}.

This is not to say that Casablanca (1942) is not a work of American patriotism; indeed, it might just be the greatest example. The film owes its enduring legacy to how seamlessly director Michael Curtiz, and his troupe of writers and actors, was able to encapsulate the sentiment of the time in which the picture was made. The story ends with Rick and Renault strolling resolutely into the thick mist, their futures obscured by the fog of uncertainty that hovers before their faces. What will the next few turbulent years have in store for these heroes? Will they be overwhelmed by the enemy, or continue their noble fight for freedom? Following Operation Torch, the 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa, there were plans to film one of those dreaded propagandistic epilogues, showing Rick, Renault and a detachment of Free French soldiers on a ship. Owing to Claude Rains' fortuitous unavailability for filming, the original ending was left intact, and producer David O. Selznick was never more correct than when he concluded "it would be a terrible mistake to change the ending."

When Casablanca was first conceived, the filmmakers apparently had little idea they were about to produce one of cinema's best-loved pictures. A prime example of the studio-bound exotica that was popular at the time, and obviously a war-time off-shoot of Howard Hawks' Colombian aviation adventure Only Angels Have Wings (1939) – perhaps also John Cromwell's Algiers (1938), which I unfortunately haven't seen – the film reproduced the stuffy, humid climate and seedy, corrupt personalities of Morocco on the Warner Bros. sets, which ironically communicate more romantic charm than the real location could ever have provided. The film was shot by veteran cinematographer Arthur Edeson, who had previously worked on the wonderfully-atmospheric All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Frankenstein (1931) and The Maltese Falcon (1941). His perfectly-framed photography suggests a mixture of stuffy melodrama, glamorous adventure and shadowy noir, though, interestingly, he avoids the sordidness of the latter style's successors, despite the wealth of suitably-seedy characters to be found in Casablanca. Framed through Edeson's lens, it seems that even the most squalid and repulsive of personalities can take on a curious facade of nobility.

No less than six people had a hand in the film's justly-celebrated screenplay. The story was based on a then-unproduced play by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison, "Everybody Comes to Rick's," and was adapted for the screen by Julius and Philip Epstein and Howard Koch, with uncredited input by Casey Robinson. The Epstein twins were initially keen to give the film a few comedic elements; this would, no doubt, have made for entertaining viewing, not unlike a Howard Hawks picture, but might have detracted from the story's core themes of love, loyalty, regret, moral responsibility and self-sacrifice. Koch had perhaps a clearer understanding of the director's preferences – another wonderful film from Curtiz, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), also poses a vital moral dilemma – and chose to focus largely on the politics and melodrama of Burnett and Alison's play. That so many conflicting artistic ideas somehow melded together, not only into a cohesive narrative, but also into history's greatest screenplay, is a miracle to be credited only to the cinema gods, particularly in view of the fact that Curtiz commenced filming with an incomplete script that was updated daily.

Perhaps another possible explanation for the film's unlikely legacy lies with the distinguished cast, borrowed from all over Europe. Humphrey Bogart, Dooley Wilson and Joy Page were the sole American "imports," and assorted supporting talents were plundered from the United Kingdom (Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet), Sweden (Ingrid Bergman), Austria (Paul Henreid), Hungary (Peter Lorre) and even Germany (Conrad Veidt, who fled the Nazi regime in 1933 after marrying a Jewish woman). Bogart, who had been typecast throughout the 1930s as a lowlife gangster, had been given the opportunity to show some humanity in Raoul Walsh' film noir High Sierra (1941), but it was Casablanca that proved his first genuinely romantic role, and, with several notable exceptions, the remainder of his acting career would comprise of similarly-noble yet flawed heroes. Bergman, despite having a rather passive role, was never more enchanting than as Ilsa Lund, and, photographed with a softening gauze filter and catch lights, positively sparkles with gentle compassion and sadness.

Perhaps it's just the romantic in me, but Casablanca represents, without a doubt, one of Hollywood's most unforgettable accomplishments. Even as the film draws to a majestic close, and two men forge a lifelong friendship in the fog-ridden uncertainty of war, we immediately feel like asking Sam to play it again… just for old time's sake.

Currently my #1 film of 1942:
1) Casablanca (Michael Curtiz)
2) The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles)
3) The Major and the Minor (Billy Wilder)