1. There Was a Father (Ozu)
2. Equinox Flower (Ozu)
3. Repulsion (Polanski)
4. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
5. Save the Green Planet (Jang)
6. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
7. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
8. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
9. Craig’s Wife (Arzner)
10. Merrily We Go to Hell (Arzner)
Monthly Archives: January 2011
1. There Was a Father (Ozu)
“This isn’t a goddamn humanitarian film. It’s a hard-hitting, action-packed melodrama. Give your award to Ingmar Bergman.”
– Sam Fuller, accepting a Humanitarian Award for Shock Corridor at the Valladolid International Film Festival
Although January isn’t even over, I doubt there will be many more significant home video releases in all of 2011 than the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray editions of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss, two seminal works by one of America’s most iconoclastic filmmakers. These nightmarish, post-noir masterpieces, written and directed by Sam Fuller in 1963 and 1964, are finally getting the treatment they deserve with Criterion’s sparkling new anamorphic HD transfers, which supplant the company’s earlier standard DVD releases of the same titles (spine numbers 18 and 19, respectively). Additionally, both discs are loaded with sterling special features that make them an ideal introduction to the work of a man aptly dubbed “a cinematic warrior” by Quentin Tarantino.
Sam Fuller began his filmmaking career as a true independent, directing low-budget quickies in the late 1940s, and wound down his career the same way, albeit as an American exile scrounging for work in Europe in the late 1980s. In between, he enjoyed a lengthy stretch in Hollywood as a contract director at Twentieth Century Fox in the 1950s (where he made such highly personal and superior genre films as Fixed Bayonets, Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo and Forty Guns) and a briefer, unhappier stint there in the late 1970s and early 1980s (where he saw United Artists cut his epic war film The Big Red One by 40% and Paramount shelf his racially charged drama White Dog). Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss constitute one of the high points of Fuller’s career – when he was working as an independent for Allied Artists in the early 1960s and could express aspects of his crazy vision that he couldn’t have gotten away with at a major studio, but with enough money and resources to work with talented collaborators like actress Constance Towers and cinematographer Stanley Cortez.
Shock Corridor, the earlier of the films, is essentially a tale of two movies: a murder mystery set inside a mental hospital and an exploitation of this location as an extended metaphor for all that is wrong with America circa 1963. In Fuller’s characteristic yellow journalism-style, he tells the story of John Barrett (Peter Breck), a reporter who feigns insanity in order to be committed to an asylum where a patient was recently murdered. Once inside, he hopes to interrogate the three key witnesses to the murder, mental patients who have not been forthcoming with police. Barrett believes that solving this mystery will lead to a big story and, potentially, a Pulitzer Prize. As Barrett first befriends and then interviews the witnesses, we realize what troubling social ills drove each of them insane: anti-communist hysteria, racism and the threat of nuclear annihilation. But the closer Barrett gets to the truth, the more he risks losing his own sanity. He may eventually get the story he’s after but, after being attacked by “nymphos” in the women’s ward, subjected to electroshock therapy and more, Fuller asks “what price glory?” with a palpable and bitter irony.
Shock Corridor is full of wild, hallucinatory images befitting its central location. This includes a startling interpolation of color footage (shot by Fuller himself in Japan and South America) in an otherwise black and white film, which is used to signify the mental turmoil preceding moments of clarity for some of the patients. For many viewers, the most memorable image may be the climactic scene where Barrett imagines a thunderstorm inside the main corridor of the hospital, a scene for which Fuller flooded, and literally ruined, his large set. (By necessity, he shot this sequence last.) The film’s soundtrack also impresses with its intimations of aural hallucination: Fuller abruptly shuts music cues on and off and presents reverb-heavy internalized voice-over. In 1963, Shock Corridor may have seemed like nothing more than a ludicrous b-movie but, nearly half a century later, unencumbered by the standards of “realism” to which all American movies seem to be held by contemporary reviewers, Fuller’s vision of America-as-mental hospital looks like the audacious work of art that it is: pulpy and crude but also strangely beautiful and as visceral as a punch in the stomach.
As disturbing as some of the scenes in Shock Corridor undoubtedly are, Fuller outdoes himself with The Naked Kiss the following year. Jean-Luc Godard once memorably described Fuller’s visual style as “cinema fist” and there is no more apt scene to illustrate this than the film’s first indelible images: the point of view of a drunken pimp being beaten by a bald prostitute with her handbag. She is Kelly (Constance Towers), a “lady of the night” who proceeds to move from a nameless big city to the seemingly idyllic small town of Grantville in an effort to start her life anew. Upon arriving, she immediately throws herself into the arms of the first man she sees, a police captain named Griff (Anthony Eisley, one of many “Griff”s in Fuller’s universe), who has a habit of seducing women of loose morals before sending them packing to the seamier town on the “other side of the river.”
Only Kelly, determined to reform, refuses to leave and gets a job instead at the local Children’s Hospital. Soon she develops a romance with Grant (Michael Dante), a local millionaire and the hospital’s chief benefactor, whose grandfather was the town’s namesake. To give more of the plot away would be criminal, especially since Fuller’s story takes a bizarre left turn in the final act, which allows him to ramp up his criticism of small town hypocrisy to dizzying heights. Suffice it to say that Fuller’s vision of the evil lurking behind the façade of American white picket fence wholesomeness makes David Lynch’s similar critique in Blue Velvet look like child’s play.
Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss are profitably viewed as companion pieces in several ways, such as the fact that they share several key collaborators; central to the success of both movies are the performances of Constance Towers, the doe-eyed Irish-American actress whose impressive emotional range could convey vulnerability one minute (her heartbreaking final scene in Shock Corridor) and steely toughness the next (the memorable scene in The Naked Kiss where she forcibly stuffs money into the mouth of a brothel’s madam.) Towers may never have “made it” as an A-list actress in Hollywood but the memorable work she did for Fuller and John Ford (who both used her twice and clearly adored her) has ensured her place in film history – ahead of other stars whose careers may have seemed more respectable at the time.
Also performing double duty on both films was cinematographer Stanley Cortez, a master of chiaroscuro lighting whose previous credits included The Magnificent Ambersons and The Night of the Hunter. Cortez’s penchant for high contrast lighting is the single major reason why Criterion’s Blu-rays represent such an essential upgrade over their standard DVD counterparts; check out the interplay of light and shadow in the prison sequences of The Naked Kiss to understand how much richer and more beautiful darkness can be rendered in high-definition.
Finally, the supplements on each disc are unusually insightful and provide what amounts to a master class on the life and career of Sam Fuller. This includes vintage interviews with the great man himself, new video interviews with Constance Towers (who still looks lovely well into her seventies and tells some cracking good yarns about working with Ford and Fuller) and, best of all, Adam Simon’s feature-length 1996 documentary The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera (included on the Shock Corridor disc, marking its first home video release on any format.)
This last feature sheds light on the several lives Fuller lived as a crime reporter and soldier before he ever made a movie and contains interviews with Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, all of whom wax poetic on Fuller’s films and their influence. But it’s the incredible interviews with the outrageous raconteur Fuller, conducted not long before his death, that provide the documentary’s high point; the film ends, for instance, with Fuller pitching the idea for a biopic of Honore de Balzac, using colorful language and his trademark growl of a voice to make a hypothetical movie about the life of the mind sound almost impossibly exciting. “He was a scoundrel!”, Fuller says of Balzac. “He was a bullshit artist!” Then, after a slight pause for dramatic effect: “He was a writer!”
Thanks to Christa Fuller for making corrections to this review.
1. The Naked Kiss (Fuller)
2. Shock Corridor (Fuller)
3. The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Movie Camera (Simon)
4. The Social Network (Fincher)
5. You Only Live Once (Lang)
6. Somewhere (Coppola)
7. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
8. Sherlock Jr. (Keaton)
9. A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Sirk)
10. Iron Island (Rasoulof)
1. Another Year (Leigh)
2. There’s Always Tomorrow (Sirk)
3. Aelita: Queen of Mars (Protazanov)
4. The Cheat (DeMille)
5. Isn’t Life Wonderful (Griffith)
6. Lonesome (Fejos)
7. Cronos (del Toro)
8. The Burning Soil (Murnau)
9. The Earrings of Madame de . . . (Ophuls)
10. Anne of Avonlea (Sullivan)
Susan Doll is a Chicago-based film and pop culture historian. Over the past twenty years she has written numerous books, including the acclaimed recent titles Florida on Film (2007) and Elvis for Dummies (2009). She also teaches film studies at the college level, works as a writer/researcher for Facets Multimedia and writes a weekly film blog at the Turner Classic Movies website. I am proud to say she is also my friend and one of the people who was instrumental in setting me on the path to teaching myself. I recently spoke to Susan about the many hats she wears in Chicago’s cinephile community.
MGS: I’d like to start off by asking you about blogging because your Movie Morlocks blog was one of the inspirations for me to start this crazy blog. The thing I really like about yours is how diverse it is; it seems like you have the freedom to write about whatever the hell you feel like, whether it’s classic films from the golden age of Hollywood or more obscure independent or foreign films. What do you like and dislike most about maintaining a weekly film blog?
SD: The best part about writing for Turner is that I am in such good company. The Morlocks are knowledgeable, passionate cinephiles who are good writers. I have learned so much from them. And, we are an extremely supportive group who frequently comment on each other’s blogs. I also appreciate my readers, some of whom follow me regularly. The readers are mostly film lovers who are passionate and knowledgeable about the subject matter, so their comments are often illuminating. I like the dialogue the blog seems to inspire in readers. The hardest part about posting a blog article each week is thinking of a topic that readers might find interesting. Also difficult is creating a voice or a recognizable perspective about cinema without just relating my personal opinion on everything. No one cares about someone’s personal opinion, though they might be interested in an informed perspective that they can learn something from or compare their own ideas with. It’s a difficult balance to maintain.
MGS: You’ve been a film studies instructor in the Chicago area for more than 20 years. I believe I’ve told you this before but I once attended all of the lectures and screenings of a film noir class you taught at the Art Institute back in the mid-nineties. I remember you pointing out details about the movies that put them in a historical/social context that I found fascinating. For instance, you mentioned that the ankle bracelet worn by Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity was an indication that her character was a little bit trashy. How exactly would you describe your modus operandi as a teacher?
SD: In my experience, people—whether they are college students or average movie viewers—want to know why a film is famous or what it means. This is particularly true of classic films that, on the surface, look so different from today’s movies. (They aren’t always that different, but students don’t see them that way at first.) That’s my m.o.—to relate why a film is important or interesting, what makes it famous, or what subtext it might have that speaks to us. To merely talk about “good acting” or the content of the plot is not enough. And, teachers have to do their homework to really get at “the meat” of a film. We have to know the history of film, the cultural history of our society, the aesthetics of filmmaking (such as editing, mise-en-scene, sound), and it doesn’t hurt to know something of the other arts—literature, painting, music. Movies are complex artistic and social artifacts; I am always in awe of how complex they are. I have studied them for decades, and the more I watch or the harder I study, the more I realize I don’t know enough.
MGS: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you about Elvis, one of your areas of expertise. I just finished reading Elvis for Dummies and was impressed with the concise way you were able to explain his immense cultural significance. What were your main goals in writing this book?
SD: Despite his level of fame and recognition, Presley is the least understood pop culture icon, largely due to the media’s consistent negative treatment of him and his career. Since he broke into the mainstream in 1956, he was always painted in negative terms, except in the 1960s when he was a movie star. Frankly, it was because he was a poor white kid from the South. The mainstream press has never understood Southern culture—they still don’t. In the 50s, he was made fun of for his Southern background and then attacked because of the degeneracy of rock ‘n’ roll; in the 70s, when rock ‘n’ roll was mainstream, he was criticized for his Vegas-style show that was not innovative rock ‘n’ roll; in death, he was made fun of for the way he died; in the 1980s, his fans were stereotyped and made fun of as fat Southern women who lived in the past; now, he’s a joke because his image is so ubiquitous. With the press, he just couldn’t win. However, the media never explained WHY his music was so amazing, what it meant culturally, or why he is popular among different factions of the public. My goal was to explain those things. The media be damned.
MGS: It seems like the conventional wisdom regarding Elvis’s movie career is summed up in the 1985 movie Heaven Help Us. I don’t know if you’ve seen it but there’s a scene where a young hoodlum played by Kevin Dillon is watching Blue Hawaii in the theater and wonders aloud if someone cut Elvis’s balls off. Tell me why you don’t subscribe to this point of view.
SD: Elvis and his management deliberately and shrewdly changed his image during the early 1960s—from controversial rock ‘n’ roller to Hollywood leading man. At the time, it was a smart move. His fan base expanded tenfold, and he enjoyed the best press of his career. His films fit neatly into a genre that was popular at the time known as the teen musical. As a matter of fact, at the time, his films were considered the most well-crafted movies of that genre. Other rock ‘n’ rollers of Elvis’s generation hit the skids in the early 1960s or self-destructed. Without changing courses, Elvis’s career might have petered out as well. It’s only in retrospect that this change in image/musical style was considered a bad idea. This is because the rebellious rock ‘n’ roll music of the 1950s that Elvis epitomizes has a better reputation than the mainstream, pre-Beatles pop rock of the early 1960s. Also, Elvis himself disparaged his movies after he left Hollywood because he had wanted to become a dramatic actor, and things didn’t work out that way. It’s simply not an accurate view of Elvis’s career to equate his Hollywood era with “cutting his balls off.” And, it assumes that all of his films were weak, bad, or worthless.
MGS: The only Elvis movies I’ve seen are King Creole and The Flaming Star and, being the auteurist that I am, that’s primarily because they were directed by Michael Curtiz and Don Siegel respectively! What Elvis movies would you recommend to cinephiles looking to deepen their appreciation and understanding of the King?
SD: I think Elvis’s most interesting performance is in Follow That Dream. Though there are a handful of Elvis songs in the movie, it is not a teen musical. It’s a satire of modern life, poking great fun at consumerism, pop psychology, the American Dream, etc. Elvis plays the good-looking but simple (maybe even simple-minded) son of a nonconformist who tries to set up squatter’s rights on a beach in Florida. Elvis is like a sexually attractive Forrest Gump, who seems stupid and naïve on the surface but whose perspective on situations generally turns out to be right. He’s very funny in it. Also, every red-blooded American male needs to see Viva Las Vegas because Ann-Margret will knock your socks off, and she and Elvis are so charismatic together.
MGS: You also work at Facets Multimedia as a writer and researcher. Are there any projects you’ve worked on there of which you are especially proud?
SD: I work mostly on the Facets DVD label, and we have released many great films on the Facets label that have really expanded my understanding of international film. I have lots of personal favorites, but that’s not the question you are asking. Of all the titles I have worked on, I am most proud of releasing films by directors who suffered personal consequences for making movies they believed on. For example, during the communist era, Eastern European directors had their films censored or shelved and their careers stalled or detoured when communist authorities were offended by what they saw. Some directors left their countries (Milos Forman; Vojtech Jasny); others stuck it out (Jaromile Jires; Otakar Vavra; Vera Chytilova). But, they took risks under very controlled conditions to make films they believed in. Likewise, Facets has released films from current Iranian filmmakers, especially women, who risk jail and even death to say something in their films they feel needs to be said. Their commitment and courage should make those directors who prostitute themselves to Hollywood studios to make Hangover 2 or Yogi Bear hang their heads in shame.
MGS: I’m always surprised at how many Chicago-area movie buffs are unfamiliar with Facets. How would you explain Facets to them and what would you say to lure them away from, say, Netflix?
SD: Facets is living proof that there is more to cinema than contemporary Hollywood. I am not a cine-snob, and I love most decently crafted Hollywood films that are not fodder for 12-year-old boys, but I also like documentaries, small Hollywood movies, foreign films, classics, and indies that don’t get the same attention. These are the movies that Facets carries in its Rentals dept., releases on DVD, and shows in its theater. But, it’s hard to get the word out about them, because the studios’ mega-marketing machines and the entertainment press flood America with so much hype about the latest Hollywood blockbusters that it drowns out everything else. Anyone who wants to see something more than Hangover 2 and Yogi Bear has to take an active approach and look harder to discover all that’s out there to see. There are so many movies that are clever, fun, meaningful, and entertaining, it’s a shame that they overlooked. And, realistically speaking, I know that Facets isn’t an alternative to Netflix; they are just too big. But, it should be an addition to it. Still Netflix bothers me; it’s corporate approach to cinema is antithetical to the way I think of movies as an artistic and cultural expression. I know Netflix subscribers love it, but there is something about a computer algorhythm suggesting movies to me that makes my skin crawl.
MGS: Finally, because this is a Chicago-centric blog, I’d like to ask you about Chicago movies. What are some of your favorites either in terms of what you feel are the best movies ever filmed here or ones that show off city locations the best?
SD: Hands down, my favorite Chicago movie is Call Northside 777. Shot on location in 1948, it’s a semi-documentary drama (popular in post-WWII) starring Jimmy Stewart as a reporter who investigates a 12-year-old murder based on an ad in the personals of his newspaper. His work helps to free a Polish man falsely accused of the crime because the police rushed to judgment—a storyline still relevant to Chicagoans today. The black-and-white footage of the old Polish neighborhood on Milwaukee Avenue perfectly captures working-class Chicago. Likewise, the shots of the Loop and other parts of downtown are like a step back in time. It’s based on a true story, and the documentary-style location cinematography helps the viewer believe it. Also, Chicagoans should check out Goldstein, Philip Kaufmann’s first film shot on location around the city in the early 1960s. It showcases what was new at the time—Marina Towers—plus chronicles what was about to change—the Back of the Yards neighborhood.
You can read Susan’s blog here.
You can learn more about Facets here.
The following newly written essay is based on notes for a lecture I gave at my friend Sara Vaux’s Religion and Film class at Northwestern University last year.
“The filmed sequence shows a prisoner’s unsuccessful escape from a prison van, from the first attempt to the last consequence. The sequence consists of about forty setups, each one clear and simple, with no regard for superficial beauty. Each setup makes sense only in connection with the preceding one and the one that succeeds it.
The necessary prerogatives for the escape – the fugitive, his hand, the door handle inside the car, a vehicle and a streetcar which force, or almost force, the prison van to stop – are clearly shown in their interrelationships. In relatively quick succession, we see first the fugitive, who stares ahead; then the road, where in a moment a vehicle may force the prison van to stop; then the fugitive’s hand, reaching for the door handle.”
– from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1966 application to the German Film and Television Academy, Berlin. Fassbinder was shown the opening scene of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, without being told the title, and asked to analyze it. Fassbinder’s application to the school was rejected.
To many film critics and historians, it would seem perverse to suggest that Robert Bresson and Clint Eastwood might have anything in common. Bresson’s movies come across as self-consciously crafted works of “high art,” the seriousness of which is signaled by their esteemed source material (e.g., 19th century Russian literature), religious overtones in the images and dialogue and, in the earlier films, the use of canonical classical music (Mozart, Schubert, Lully) on the soundtrack. These signposts are in part what has precipitated endless critical discussion of the “transcendental” qualities of Bresson’s cinema. Eastwood’s movies, by contrast, are often relegated to a less elevated sphere of discussion. (A refreshing exception is the staff of Cahiers du Cinema who, forty three years after naming A Man Escaped the best film of 1956, daringly named The Bridges of Madison County the best film of the 1990s in a decade-ending critic’s poll.) Eastwood’s movie star persona still tends to be the focus of the reviews of even the movies he directs but doesn’t star in, as opposed to whatever ideas he might have as a filmmaker. And because of his long associations with the detective thriller and western genres, Eastwood is still thought of primarily as a genre director. Some schools of critical thought unfortunately believe that true artists do not work with generic conventions. Indeed, Bresson never made a movie that could be classified as a genre piece.
Nevertheless, to look at the actual nuts and bolts filmmaking practices of each director is to notice a strange symmetry between them in regards to form. And this ultimately translates to a symmetry in regards to ethics as well. Fassbinder’s analysis of the opening scene of A Man Escaped, a brilliant close reading of Bresson’s style, could also apply to many, many scenes directed by Clint Eastwood but not, I believe, the films of most other contemporary directors. For example, Fassbinder notes how Bresson clearly shows us all of the elements of a scene in their “interrelationships.” Eastwood, the director, has a comparable clarity of form to Bresson regarding how images relate to each other – Eastwood allows viewers to see, in a simple and direct way, exactly what he wants them to see, no more and no less, through similar chains of interrelated images.
The scene in all of Eastwood’s movies that most obviously resembles the opening of A Man Escaped is the climactic scene of The Bridges of Madison County, a terrific film that transcends the trashy romance novel on which it is based. In that heart-stopping sequence, Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) is in the passenger seat of her husband’s truck as the two are stopped in traffic in the rain. Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), the man with whom she has just had an affair, is in the truck in front of them, unbeknownst to the husband. Francesca looks at the passenger side door handle and contemplates whether to open the door and “escape” from her husband’s truck in much the same way that Lieutenant Fontaine in A Man Escaped has to decide whether to try escaping from the prison van. If she doesn’t flee from her husband and leave with Robert at that precise moment, she knows he will drive away, out of town and out of her life forever.
What these scenes have in common is ultimately something more than the superficial similarity of a narrative situation where a character is attempting to determine whether to jump out of a stalled vehicle. The deeper affinity lies in the fact that in each instance suspense is being generated by the director through purely visual storytelling; in Eastwood’s case he makes us feel the power of Francesca’s dilemma through cinematography and editing, clearly showing us the interrelationships between Francesca, her husband, the door handle, the traffic light, and Robert’s reflection in the rearview mirror of the truck in front of her. This is a perfect illustration of Fassbinder’s formulation that “each shot makes sense only in relation to the one that precedes it and the one that succeeds it.” Sometimes a door handle is just a door handle. In Eastwood’s film, because of the context in which it is carefully placed, it’s a door handle that can make you cry.
Another aspect of Fassbinder’s analysis that I think can be applied to Eastwood as well as Bresson is the “disregard for superficial beauty.” It is often difficult for filmmakers to resist the temptation to show beautiful images but this is precisely what Bresson and Eastwood do. They both believe in showing what is necessary at the expense of showing something beautiful. This is particularly striking in Eastwood’s case given how closely he is identified with the western, a genre known for its pictorial beauty. But from High Plains Drifter to Unforgiven, Eastwood doesn’t typically linger on shots of sunsets, landscapes or other types of picture-postcard scenery commonly associated with the genre.
Finally, both Bresson and Eastwood might be said to have a minimalist or “essentialist” style, ruthlessly paring down the image to only what they deem is its most essential elements, but they achieve this in different ways. The most prominent way Eastwood pares down his images is through the use of low-key lighting. Eastwood has consistently made the darkest movies (literally, if not figuratively) in Hollywood over the past several decades. Working with talented cinematographers like Jack Green and Tom Stern, Eastwood submerges his images in darkness as a means of directing viewers’ eyes to exactly what he wants them to see. Bresson achieves similar ends by favoring a shallower focus image and by fragmenting the human body into close-ups of its various parts.
What does this have to do with ethics? The essentialist style of both men is ultimately pressed to the service of the same theme: redemption. Eastwood is interested in redemption in terms of social justice, Bresson is interested in redemption as a kind of spiritual transformation that occurs inside of an individual. For Eastwood’s purposes, it’s important that he paints the broadest possible portrait of society so that he can more effectively juxtapose his individual protagonists against it – hence his sometimes misunderstood melodramatic style. Society in Eastwood is frequently portrayed as corrupt and incapable of providing true justice; therefore it is usually up to one individual to restore justice and a sense of social order. This is most obvious in the westerns (think of the depictions of community in the towns of Lago in High Plains Drifter and Big Whiskey in Unforgiven) but it’s also true of the contemporary films as well. Eastwood’s uncluttered visual style is especially important here because “unnecessary” images will only get in the way of his ambitious societal portraits. Surely Clint Eastwood, a master of shorthand communication and a melodramatist par excellence, is the only man who could have made as ambitious a film as Invictus clock in at a relatively lean 134 minutes!
Robert Bresson approaches the theme of redemption differently. Because Bresson is interested in the redemption of individual souls, he prioritizes interiority and subjectivity. Bresson constantly looks for ways to draw us into the inner lives of his characters: fragmentation, voice-over narration, neutral acting, etc. Interestingly, in comparison to the melodramas of Eastwood, society is depicted as something abstract and almost unreal in Bresson because his movies are so relentlessly focused on the individual. (Many critics have pointed out that, for this reason, some of Bresson’s contemporary movies like Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne and Une Femme Douce seem to be taking place in a distant, dreamy past.) This means that whatever measure of redemption Bresson’s characters manage to achieve is pointedly not felt by the larger society within the film, unlike in Eastwood’s films where that impact is often felt with a vengeance. The community in Diary of a Country Priest, for instance, does not know or care whether the priest has received God’s grace before dying. The important thing is that the character feels it and, if we are seeing and hearing the movie properly, hopefully we feel it too.
1. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick)
2. People on Sunday (Siodmak/Ulmer)
3. Madame DuBarry (Lubitsch)
4. Pickup on South Street (Fuller)
5. Maedchen in Uniform (Froelich/Sagan)
6. Anne of Green Gables (Sullivan)
7. The Exorcist (Extended Director’s Cut – Friedkin)
8. Variety (Dupont)
9. The Black Cat (Ulmer)
10. Paris Je T’aime (Various)
As a critic in the 1950s, Jean-Luc Godard quipped that “all roads lead to Rome Open City.” Given the film’s continued status as one of the three quintessential works of the Italian Neorealist movement (alongside of Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Luchino Visconti’s La Terra Trema) and hence one of the most influential movies made in any era, Godard’s statement rings as true today as it did over half a century ago. With the recent DVD release of Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (in which the Criterion Collection has bundled together Rome Open City with Rossellini’s other Neorealist masterpieces Paisan and Germany Year Zero), I happily find myself with a new occasion to re-examine what made, and still makes, this breakthrough movie such an important and vital standard-bearer of the thorny concept of “movie realism.”
The Neorealist movement initially arose as a reaction against the prestigious “White Telephone” films (glossy melodramas so nicknamed because of the conversations they often depicted involving wealthy characters speaking to each other on white phones) that had previously dominated the Italian film industry under the dictatorship of Benito Mussolini. In contrast to the big budgets, glamorous stars and studio sets of White Telephone cinema, which seemed imitative of the glossy melodramas coming out of Hollywood at the same time, the Neorealists (a term coined by the directors themselves) sought to present a degree of unfettered realism never before seen on Italian cinema screens. What Neorealism did that the escapist White Telephone films did not was address contemporary social problems such as crime, unemployment, poverty and, of course, the ravages of war. After years of presenting a world that corresponded to working class audience desires, the Italian film industry was suddenly holding a mirror in front of that audience for the very first time.
Ironically, one of the reasons why Neorealism was able to flourish during the 1940s was because Italy had been decimated by the war and the national economy was in shambles. Cinecitta, the biggest studio in Rome (then as now), was being used to house war refugees and the government had no money to support the local film industry. But the Neorealist directors weren’t interested in shooting at Cinecitta anyway. They preferred the raw and gritty aesthetic that documentary-style location shooting provided, as Luchino Visconti had proved with his powerful debut film Ossessione in 1942. In a way, the economically ravaged industry played right into the hands of the Neorealist directors and probably extended the life of the movement by several years.
Rome Open City, the first true masterpiece of Neorealism, began shooting in Rome in January 1945, a mere six months after the Nazi-occupied city had been liberated by the Allied forces. Eight months after that, with much of Rome still reduced to rubble from the fighting, Rossellini’s film premiered in Italian theaters. Rome Open City looks remarkable today in that it dramatizes events that only months previously had actually occurred in many of the same urban locations. This sense of immediacy provided by Rome Open City and other Italian films of the 1940s had no correlation in any other national cinema, least of all in Hollywood, and the whole world became transfixed by the sheer novelty of this bold “new realism.” As a consequence, it wasn’t uncommon for Neorealist films to play in even the most rural areas of the United States in the 1940s – as newspaper ads from Watauga County, North Carolina of the period can attest (even if independent theater owners had to sex up their advertisements for Paisan with photos of a scantily clad woman and the titillating tagline “More open than Open City!”).
The plot of Rome Open City concerns the plight of members of the Italian resistance to the occupational Nazi government, namely the resistance leader Manfredi, the underground Communist newspaper printer Francesco, Francesco’s fiancé Pina and the priest Don Pietro. The latter two characters are the most unforgettable and, perhaps not coincidentally, were played by the most experienced actors in the cast. After seeing the film, who can forget Aldo Fabrizi (best known in Italy, incredibly, as a comedian) as Don Pietro, cursing the Nazis with tears streaming down his face before begging God for forgiveness? Or the even more famous scene where Pina, magnificently embodied by Anna Magnini, runs after a prison truck shouting “Francesco!” as the Nazis cart her soon-to-be-husband away? The latter scene, a quick montage of short takes and one dramatic tracking shot, conjures up the abruptness and finality of death as well as any scene in the history of cinema.
But Rome Open City is not only definitive Neorealism because it is a great and groundbreaking film; it also contains all of the hallmarks of the movement (in much the same way that Out of the Past contains all of the hallmarks of film noir); this includes shooting scenes silently and post-synchronizing the sound, a loosely constructed narrative with an ambiguous, “open” ending (the fate of at least one character is a complete mystery) and the aforementioned use of location shooting. However, the extent to which Neorealist conventions are typified by the film has been muddied somewhat in the decades since its original release. For many years the poor quality of circulating prints helped to foster the myth that Rossellini had shot Rome Open City on “short ends” of mismatching film stock. When the original negative was restored in 1995, this was discovered not to be the case. And while the film does feature several rubble-strewn exteriors that are incredibly evocative, it has also come to light that some of the key interiors were shot on studio-constructed sets.
One of the reasons Criterion’s DVD release of Rome Open City is such a revelation is that it proves the film is far better looking than most of us had ever realized. The poor image quality of the old Image DVD had fooled me into thinking that flaws from a worn and faded print, not to mention a less than optimum transfer, were part and parcel of some sort of consciously constructed Neorealist Integrity on the part of Rossellini. The Criterion disc proves that while the film does contain some gritty visual textures, they exist side-by-side with camerawork that is slick and polished and not too far removed from the aesthetics of the White Telephone films that Rossellini was rebelling against.
While Rome Open City will likely never be as famous or audience friendly as Bicycle Thieves, Rossellini today looks like the undisputed heavyweight champion director of Italian Neorealism. His body of work as a whole has certainly been the most influential of any of the filmmakers who got their start in the movement, in part because the films he made in the 1940s were only the first phase in a long and continually surprising career; Rossellini went on to make very different kinds of films in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (including an astonishing cycle of romantic melodramas in collaboration with Ingrid Bergman and a series of didactic, de-dramatzed but strangely enthralling history films that in some perverse way represent Neorealism pushed to its logical limit). But none of those later phases would have been possible if Rossellini had not first cut his teeth on the low-budget but genuinely risk-taking Rome Open City, a film for which no one at the time may have been clamoring but which, posterity has proven, the world nonetheless very much-needed.