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Tag Archives: Bigger Than Life

Sirk/Fassbinder: Melodrama Mutations

“This, anyhow, is what enchants me about Sirk: this delirious mixture of medieval and modern, sentimentality and subtlety, tame compositions and frenzied CinemaScope.”

– Jean Luc Godard writing about A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Godard on Godard translated by Tom Milne, Da Capo Press)

In the same way that the gangster movie can be said to belong to the Hollywood cinema of the 1930s and film noir can be said to belong to the 1940s, the melodrama genre belongs more to the 1950s than any other decade. This is in part because the extreme stylization of mise-en-scene that we associate with the genre arguably required the “bigger than life” virtues of Technicolor and widescreen cinematography that didn’t become de rigueur until the 1950s. It is also in part because postwar societal changes saw more Americans rebelling against narrowly defined social roles, changes that were explicitly dramatized in melodrama masterpieces like Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running. These two facets can be seen as neatly dovetailing when the filmmaking innovations of the day proved to be ideal tools for critiquing the specific climate of postwar repression that now seems synonymous with the “Eisenhower era.” In writing about Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life, Geoff Andrew has noted how “At every level the banal props of ’50s prosperity are turned into symbols of suffocation and trauma, from the X-ray machine used to diagnose (James) Mason’s ‘disease’ to the bathroom cabinet mirror shattering under a desperate blow.” To which one might add that it was precisely Ray’s masterful ‘Scope compositions and bold employment of color that made his critique so effective. Ray knew how to use the latest filmmaking technology to highlight the nightmarish undertone of these new “props of prosperity.”

The medicine chest, a broken “prop of prosperity,” in Bigger Than Life:

The melodrama has its origins in theater and actually predates the movies as a genre (the word literally means “drama with music” and was coined in 18th century France), and film scholar John Belton has provocatively argued that all silent movies, even comedies, are also melodramas. But the melodrama didn’t come into its own as a cinematic genre until the 1950s when Universal Studios produced a cycle of films directed by the Danish/German emigre Douglas Dirk. Sirk was to the melodrama what Hitchcock was to the thriller, what Ford was to the western and what Minnelli was to the musical: its most famous and accomplished practitioner. The color melodramas that Sirk made for Universal between 1954 and 1959 are high water marks that virtually define the genre: Magnificent Obsession, All That Heaven Allows, Written on the Wind, A Time to Love and a Time to Die, Imitation of Life. Of these, All That Heaven Allows is frequently cited as Sirk’s masterpiece, largely because it was loosely remade not once but twice: by Rainer Werner Fassbinder as Ali: Fear Eats the Soul in 1973 and by Todd Haynes as Far From Heaven in 2002. A comparison between Sirk’s original film and Fassbinder’s similar-yet-different remake offers an object lesson in how a genre can successfully mutate from one country and era to another, offering filmmakers living in different cultural climates the same framework in which to create diverse social critiques, while still retaining the same core characteristics.

These characteristics, which can be found in spades in both All That Heaven Allows and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, include:

– the extreme stylization of not only mise-en-scene (as previously mentioned) but also dialogue and acting
– a foregrounding and heightening of the characters’ emotions
– the domestic sphere as a central location
– plots revolving around family tensions and romantic entanglements
– narratives involving incredible coincidences, accidents, last minute rescues and reversals of fortune

Sirk’s stylized mise-en-scene combines different color temperatures, cold and warm, within a single frame:

All That Heaven Allows relays the dilemma of Carrie Scott (Jane Wyman), an attractive middle-aged widow who unexpectedly falls in love with Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), her much younger gardner. Their budding romance is frowned upon by the surrounding small town community, including Carrie’s grown children, because of both the age and class discrepancy that exists between them. The true subject of the film is the intolerance and hypocrisy of middle America, which Sirk shows as being rooted in prejudice and fear. This is best illustrated in two back to back scenes where Carrie is shunned first by her country club set friends at a party and then castigated by her son at home. The earlier scene offers some of the outrageously stylized, bordering-on-camp dialogue and acting for which Sirk’s movies have become beloved. When Carrie arrives at the party with Ron in tow, their “coming out” party as a couple, the reaction of her peers ranges from bemusement to envy to outright hostility. Mona, one of Carrie’s female acquaintances, references Ron’s tan from “working outdoors” before packing many layers of innuendo into a follow-up comment that he must be “handy indoors too.” Howard, a male acquaintance, likewise assumes that Carrie’s interest in Ron must be only physical and attempts to kiss her after drunkenly declaring “Line forms to the right!”

After leaving the party abruptly, Carrie returns home where she is confronted by her son, Ned, who minces words even less: “I think all you see is a good-looking set of muscles!,” Ned hisses disapprovingly. This scene, literally the darkest in the film, shows off Sirk’s stylized mise-en-scene to best effect. Both Carrie and Ned are cloaked in heavy shadows throughout their tense dialogue exchange, although Sirk also combines different color temperatures within a single frame in order to subtly comment on the characters: Carrie is bathed in a warm orange light while the light that falls on Ned is cold and blue. During this exchange, Carrie and Ned change places in the room and yet the light that surrounds them paradoxically remains the same. When the scene ends, Carrie pleads for Ned to not “let this come between us.” Ned replies, “If you mean Kirby, he already has.” Most directors would have isolated these characters from each other in separate alternating close-ups at this moment, in order to emphasize the emotional distance between them, but Sirk does something more interesting; he has the characters speak their lines to each other through a translucent Chinese screen-like room divider. By doing so, he creates frames within a frame that not only emphasize the distance between the characters but show them to be metaphorically imprisoned as well.

Frames within a frame in All That Heaven Allows:

One of the film’s most celebrated sequences (and one that Martin Scorsese chose to include in his Personal Journey Through American Movies before All That Heaven Allows had ever received a home video release) involves Carrie’s children presenting their mother with a Christmas gift of a new television. At this point in the movie, Carrie has called off her relationship with Ron, and her children clearly intend for the television to fill the new void in her life. This intention is made explicit when the television salesman informs Carrie “All you have to do is turn that dial and you have all the company you want . . . right there on the screen.” The scene ends with an image as clever as it is haunting, a somber Carrie staring at her own reflection in the switched-off television screen. Here, Sirk’s critique is twofold: as a prop of prosperity, the television is a poor substitute for a lover and, as a competing form of audio-visual entertainment, its image is inferior to that of the cinema!

The impact of Sirk on Fassbinder, while well-known, cannot be overestimated. Fassbinder’s earliest movies from the late 1960s and early 1970s were self-consciously intellectual, avant-garde-tinged works of political modernism. After discovering the films of Sirk, Fassbinder realized that not only could the cinema be simultaneously emotionally engaging and socially critical, but that audiences might be able to swallow such criticism more easily if it could be subversively couched within the conventions of a highly emotional genre like the melodrama. While many of Fassbinder’s best films from 1971 through the premature end of his career in 1982 show the obvious influence of Sirk, it can perhaps be most strongly felt in 1974’s Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, the one time Fassbinder actively remade the plot of one of his master’s movies.

Ali: Fear Eats the Soul updates the basic premise of All That Heaven Allows to the Germany of the early 1970s; it tells the story of Emmi, a middle-aged cleaning lady, who embarks on an unlikely romance with Ali, a much younger immigrant worker from Morocco. So not only does Fassbinder tackle agism and classism, a la Sirk, but racism and xenophobia as well. Similar to Sirk, Fassbinder’s unlikely scenario forces his disparate characters together in a way that will cause them to reveal prejudices that might otherwise remain hidden. But it’s worth noting that Fassbinder’s milieu is pointedly urban and multicultural (it takes place in Munich) so that the social ills he depicts, unlike those in All That Heaven Allows, cannot be seen as stemming from “provincial thinking.” Showing social prejudice to be a kind of disease underlying the facade of civilized German society is one of the links Fassbinder makes between the Germany of the time he made his film and his country’s Nazi past. This link is made explicit when Emmi takes Ali to a fancy restaurant to celebrate their engagement, one that she boasts was a favorite of Hitler.

Fassbinder’s mise-en-scene is likewise stylized along Sirkian lines with characters frequently framed behind windows or railings to suggest entrapment, although Fassbinder betrays his avant-garde roots by composing images that call more attention to themselves in their artfulness. This self-conscious use of form to explicitly comment on content was accurately and memorably described by Manny Farber as “snarl and decoration.” But taking a cue from his more urban milieu, Fassbinder also elaborates on the Sirk playbook in ways that are meaningful and original. For instance, he frequently shoots his characters from a distance, often through doorways, to give his scenes a more voyeuristic feel. Because these working class, city dwellers live in crowded apartment buildings and not, say, houses in New England, Fassbinder repeatedly makes viewers aware of the extent to which his characters are living in close quarters to each other, allowing us to read varying degrees of social prejudice into the silent gazes of his characters as they openly spy on one another.

“Snarl and decoration” in Fear Eats the Soul:

Fassbinder’s cleverest Sirk homage in Ali: Fear Eats the Soul comes in a scene that also includes a television as a prop; Emmi never bothers to inform her grown children of her relationship with Ali until after the two have married. She invites over her two sons, daughter and son-in-law (played by the director himself) with the promise of a big announcement. Once the children are seated in the living room in front of her, Emmi brings out Ali, wearing his best suit, and formally introduces him as her husband. A slow pan across the children’s faces registers their silent disgust. Then, one of her sons, stands up and proceeds to kick in the screen of his mother’s television set. The difference between the television scene in each film illustrates the extent to which the television ceased to be a prop of prosperity for the rich and had instead become a ubiquitous fixture of working class homes. In the earlier film, Ned sheepishly apologizes for only being able to afford a “table top” model. In the latter, the T.V. is no longer a status symbol and a novelty but a necessity that is both practically valueless and easily disposable.

One of the joys of raking through the history of cinema is to note the kind of explicit repurposing of genre conventions that I’ve outlined above. Fassbinder, a keen student of film history himself, was acutely aware of this impulse but also of the importance of elaborating upon and adding to that from which he borrowed. The radical nature of Fassbinder’s art is of the kind that can only stem from a true reverence for the masters who invented the very rules he intended to bend. I will leave the last word to him from his famous essay on Sirk:

“‘Film is like a battleground’ Sam Fuller, who once wrote a script for Douglas Sirk, said in a film by Jean-Luc Godard, who, shortly before he made A Bout de Souffle, wrote a rhapsody on Douglas Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die. But not one of us, Godard or Fuller or me or anybody else, can touch Douglas Sirk. Sirk has said: ‘cinema is blood, is tears, violence, hate, death, and love’. And Sirk has made films with blood, with tears, with violence, hate—films with death and films with love. Sirk has said: you can’t make films about things, you can only make films with things, with people, with light, with flowers, with mirrors, with blood, in fact with all the fantastic things which make life worth living. Sirk has also said: a director’s philosophy is lighting and camera angles. And Sirk has made the tenderest films I know, they are the films of someone who loves people and doesn’t despise them as we do. Darryl F. Zanuck once said to Sirk: ‘They’ve got to like the movie in Kansas City and in Singapore.’ America is really something else.”

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A Golden Age of Hollywood Primer, pt. 2

A continuation of the list of essential titles from Hollywood’s studio system era that I began earlier this week. This part of the list encompasses films released from 1948 – 1959.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, Universal, 1948)

Set in Vienna in the early twentieth century, Max Ophuls’ masterpiece tells the incredible story of the title letter-writer (Joan Fontaine) and her three brief but fateful encounters with a ne’er-do-well pianist (Louis Jourdan) over the course of several decades. His inability to recognize her on the latter two occasions elevates the simple plot, which is recounted via flashback, to the level of high tragedy. Fontaine is heart-breaking in the lead role but the real star is German-born, French-bred director Max Ophuls, whose relentless use of tracking shots has made him virtually synonymous with that type of camera movement and has been a major influence on subsequent directors from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson.

All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 20th Century Fox, 1950)

The career of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, universally acknowledged as a brilliant screenwriter but still underrated as a director, hit a dizzying career peak with this backstage drama, a witty and highly literate bitch-fest. A ruthlessly ambitious young actress (Anne Baxter) insinuates herself into the life of her idol, a legendary theatrical actress experiencing a mid-life crisis (Bette Davis, magnificent in a role that undoubtedly hit close to home). The whole ensemble cast is perfect including both of the leads, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, Marilyn Monroe and, especially, George Sanders as an acid-tongued theater critic.

Park Row (Fuller, United Artists, 1952)

Sam Fuller’s highly personal, self-financed love letter to “the fourth estate” is also his greatest achievement: an enormously entertaining look back at the newspaper rivalries of late 19th century New York City starring Gene Evans (The Steel Helmet) as Phineas Mitchell, a reporter who dares to start his own paper. Told in the broad, colorful strokes that became Fuller’s trademark, this cinematic yarn consistently delights in everything from its exquisite period detail to its staggering use of crane shots. The unavailability of Park Row on home video is positively scandalous. Are you listening, Criterion?

Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, MGM, 1952)

The most beloved Hollywood musical of all-time, in large part because it offers an affectionate and humorous look back at the process of filmmaking during the dramatic period when silent pictures gave way to the talkies. Co-directed and choreographed by star Gene Kelly, who brought a more masculine and aggressively athletic style of dance to the movie musical – in contrast to the Fred Astaire-style gracefulness that had previously dominated the genre.

The Band Wagon (Minnelli, MGM, 1953)

Speaking of which . . . my own personal favorite musical is this Vincente Minnelli gem. Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is an over the hill hoofer whose latest show, a theatrical musical comedy, is hijacked by Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), a pretentious director intent on turning it into a modern day version of Faust. Exacerbating the situation is that Hunter can’t stand Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse – never lovelier), the ballet dancer hired by Cordova to star opposite him. Sparks fly between Astaire and Charisse both off the dance floor and on, especially during such classic production numbers as “Dancing in the Dark,” “That’s Entertainment” and the film noir influenced “Girl Hunt.”

The Naked Spur (Mann, MGM, 1953)

In the 1950s, multi-genre specialist Anthony Mann crafted his own unique brand of “psychological western,” which is typified by a series of fascinating Jimmy Stewart vehicles. Here, Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a traumatized Civil War veteran-turned-bounty hunter who reluctantly accepts the help of two strangers in tracking down wanted killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan in his prime). During the lengthy trek back to civilization where Vandergroat will stand trial, the captive shrewdly manipulates his trio of captors, driving wedges of resentment between them . . . This was perhaps the first of several great ’50s films to subtly undermine Stewart’s all American, nice guy persona.

Night of the Hunter (Laughton, United Artists, 1955)

A bizarre confluence of talented people came together in 1955 to bring to the screen this one of a kind masterpiece – a cross between a Brothers Grimm fairy tale and a gothic horror film. This includes Davis Grubb, who provided the pure Americana source novel, film critic-turned-screenwriter James Agee, veteran British actor Charles Laughton (directing for the first only time), and Robert Mitchum, playing way outside of himself as the psychotic preacher of the title. The luminescent cinematography is courtesy of the great Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons).

All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, Universal, 1956)

Douglas Sirk was to the melodrama what Alfred Hitchcock was to the thriller – its most famous and accomplished practitioner. All That Heaven Allows is his most beautifully realized creation, the story of an upper-class, middle-aged widow (Jane Wyman) who provokes scandal when she embarks on a romance with her much younger, working class gardener (Rock Hudson). Celebrated in some quarters as a subversive Marxist critique of middle America, derided in others as camp, I think All That Heaven Allows was rightly appreciated by 1950s audiences for what it is – a masterful tearjerker and damning indictment of hypocrisy rolled up into one entertaining and colorful package.

Bigger Than Life (Ray, 20th Century Fox, 1956)

James Mason is a schoolteacher and family man who begins suffering from a bizarre strain of megalomania after becoming addicted to the prescription “wonder drug” cortisone. Director Nicholas Ray’s unparalleled mastery of ‘Scope framing (check out what he does with the staircase in Mason’s home) and Technicolor (those yellow cabs!), combined with mise-en-scene that reconfigures American post-war prosperity as something nightmarish and oppressive, is perfectly suited to the melodramatic storyline. “God was wrong!”

The Searchers (Ford, Warner Brothers, 1956)

Quite simply one of the greatest movie ever made, John Ford’s deeply felt western combines adventure, tragedy, comedy and romance in the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in his best and most complex performance), a Civil War veteran who embarks on an obsessive, years-long quest to find his niece after she is kidnapped by Comanche Indians. Only what is he really searching for? His humanity? The Moby Dick of the cinema.

Vertigo (Hitchcock, Paramount, 1958)

Alfred Hitchcock’s highly personal and deeply disturbing study of obsession, which unfolds like a dark and troubling dream. Jimmy Stewart is Scottie Ferguson, a retired cop with a fear of heights who agrees to work a job as a private eye at the request of an old friend. This involves tailing the friend’s wife (Kim Novak), with whom Ferguson falls hopelessly and dangerously in love. Hitchcock leads both Ferguson and the viewer into a downward spiral of despair, eventually ripping the lid off a Pandora’s box of sexual perversity containing voyeurism, fetishism and – as Hitchcock was happy to note – necrophilia. A career high point for all involved including Hitchcock, Stewart and composer Bernard Herrmann.

Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, Columbia, 1959)

An electrifying courtroom drama in which a country lawyer (Jimmy Stewart again) agrees to defend a G.I. (Ben Gazzara) accused of killing the man who raped his wife (Lee Remick). Director Otto Preminger was always one to push the envelope and you can almost feel the old studio system crumbling around him when listening to this film’s daring use of language and looking at its authentic and evocative Michigan locations. Also features a snazzy Duke Ellington score.

Some Like It Hot (Wilder, United Artists, 1959)

Billy Wilder’s crude, gender-bending comedy about a couple of down on their luck Chicago musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who disguise themselves as women to get a job in an all-female band headed to Florida. En route, they both develop the hots for singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe at her sultriest) but of course can’t reveal their true identities. Like a lot of classic Hollywood comedies, this hilarious romp works as well as it does because you can feel director and co-writer Billy Wilder trying his damndest to smuggle risque material past the censors. It’s no coincidence that his career went south when, just a few years later, there was nothing left to fight against.


Top 25 Films of the 1950s

25. Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, France, 1959)

Alain Resnais’ first feature takes an impeccable, highly literary script by Marguerite Duras and turns it into a radical, intensely cinematic movie: two lovers, an unnamed Japanese architect and a French actress, have a lengthy conversation on the subject of memory. The present day scenes are continually peppered with flashbacks to the woman’s harrowing experiences as the persecuted lover of a German soldier during the Second World War. Resnais’ groundbreaking, nonlinear editing style, used to suggest “flashes of memory,” has had an incalculable effect on subsequent filmmakers.

24. The Music Room (Ray, India, 1958)

23. The Earrings of Madame de . . . (Ophuls, France, 1953)

Austrian-born director Max Ophuls made what are arguably the most elegant movies of the classic French cinema; his much beloved tracking shots find a perfect compliment in narrative structures that continually circle back on themselves, like a waltz, before resolving in a typically tragic denouement. Letter from an Unknown Woman, from Ophuls’ brief stint in Hollywood, is my favorite of his films but I think Madame de . . . is the masterpiece of his lengthier French career. The unnamed title character is the wife of a general in the French Army who sells her most expensive pair of earrings to pay off a debt, an act that becomes a catalyst for a chain of events bringing about her ruin. Apart from the aforementioned formal grace, the lead performances (from Daniel Darrieux, Charles Boyer and the very suave and refined-looking Italian director Vittorio de Sica) are sublime.

22. Los Olvidados (Bunuel, Mexico, 1950)

The first masterpiece of Luis Bunuel’s Mexican period is this unforgettable tale of juvenile delinquents living in the slums of Mexico City. The main characters are Jaibo, the leader of a gang, and Pedro, an impressionable boy who wants to do good but becomes enmeshed in gang activity after being repeatedly rejected by his own mother. There are many aspects to this film that are similar to Italian Neorealism, including the documentary-like visuals and incredibly naturalistic child performances, but Bunuel, being true to his roots, continually pushes the material in a more dream-like and surreal direction. An uncompromising film that was way ahead of its time, Los Olivdados feels like it could have been made yesterday.

21. The River (Renoir, France/India, 1951)

river

20. Ordet (Dreyer, Denmark, 1955)

Carl Dreyer’s penultimate film is this transcendentally uplifting drama adapted from a play by Danish pastor Kaj Monk. The slowly, exquisitely paced story takes place in a rural farming community and centers on the Borgen family, which consists of a widower father and his three grown sons. Issues of faith, love (in many forms) and repression are profoundly explored when the wife of the eldest son dies and the middle son, a religious fanatic who believes he is Jesus, claims to have the power to bring her back to life. This is not merely a film about religion; it is a spiritually intense experience unto itself, one that can even be appreciated as such by an old atheist like me.

19. Senso (Visconti, Italy, 1954)

Alida Valli is a wanton countess in 19th century Italy who betrays her country to pursue a destructive affair with a lieutenant of the occupying Austrian army (Farley Granger). Visconti’s elegant mise-en-scene, featuring impeccable period set and costume design rendered in ravishingly beautiful Technicolor, marked an about face from his early Neorealist phase and the beginning of a mature “operatic” style that would continue for the rest of his career.

18. Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958)

17. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, USA, 1953)

16. The Naked Spur (Mann, USA, 1953)

In the 1950s, multi-genre specialist Anthony Mann crafted his own unique brand of “psychological western,” which is typified by a series of fascinating Jimmy Stewart vehicles. Here, Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a traumatized Civil War veteran-turned-bounty hunter who reluctantly accepts the help of two strangers in tracking down wanted killer Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan in his prime). During the lengthy trek back to civilization where Vandergroat will stand trial, the captive shrewdly manipulates his trio of captors, driving wedges of resentment between them . . . This was perhaps the first of several great ’50s films to subtly undermine Stewart’s all American, nice guy persona.

15. Park Row (Fuller, USA, 1952)

Sam Fuller’s highly personal, self-financed love letter to “the fourth estate” is also his greatest achievement: an enormously entertaining look back at the newspaper rivalries of late 19th century New York City starring Gene Evans (The Steel Helmet) as Phineas Mitchell, a reporter who dares to start his own paper. Told in the broad, colorful strokes that became Fuller’s trademark, this cinematic yarn consistently delights in everything from its exquisite period detail to its staggering use of crane shots. The unavailability of Park Row on home video is positively scandalous. Are you listening, Criterion?

14. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1956)

Douglas Sirk was to the melodrama what Alfred Hitchcock was to the thriller – its most famous and accomplished practitioner. All That Heaven Allows is his most beautifully realized creation, the story of an upper-class, middle-aged widow (Jane Wyman) who provokes scandal when she embarks on a romance with her much younger, working class gardener (Rock Hudson). Celebrated in some quarters as a subversive Marxist critique of middle America, derided in others as camp, I think All That Heaven Allows was rightly appreciated by 1950s audiences for what it is – a masterful tearjerker and damning indictment of hypocrisy rolled up into one entertaining and colorful package.

13. Floating Clouds (Naruse, Japan, 1955)

Mikio Naruse has long been considered one of Japan’s greatest directors by Japanese critics. Yet in spite of a prolific body of work (his career began in the silent era and stretched all the way to the late 1960s) he’s never been as well known in the west as his contemporaries. Floating Clouds is my favorite of the Naruse films I’ve seen, a heartbreaking story of a doomed love affair. Yukiko (Hideko Takamine), an employee of Japan’s forest service, meets and falls in love with a co-worker, Kengo (Masayuki Mori), while stationed in French Indochina during WWII. After the war, they meet up again in Japan where an obsessed Yukiko attempts to resume the affair in the face of some very bastard-like behavior from her indifferent former lover. Naruse’s trademark ability to extend sympathy to all of his characters – in a scenario where people can’t resist making terrible decisions – left me with a feeling of sadness I’ve never quite shaken.

12. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, USA, 1952)

The most beloved Hollywood musical of all-time, in large part because it offers an affectionate and humorous look back at the process of filmmaking during the dramatic period when silent pictures gave way to the talkies. Co-directed and choreographed by star Gene Kelly, who brought a more masculine and aggressively athletic style of dance to the movie musical – in contrast to the Fred Astaire-style gracefulness that had previously dominated the genre.

11. Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, USA, 1959)

An electrifying courtroom drama in which a country lawyer (Jimmy Stewart again) agrees to defend a G.I. (Ben Gazzara) accused of killing the man who raped his wife (Lee Remick). Director Otto Preminger was always one to push the envelope and you can almost feel the old studio system crumbling around him when listening to this film’s daring use of language and looking at its authentic and evocative Michigan locations. Also features a snazzy Duke Ellington score.

10. Bigger Than Life (Ray, USA, 1956)

James Mason is a schoolteacher and family man who begins suffering from a bizarre strain of megalomania after becoming addicted to the prescription “wonder drug” cortisone. Director Nicholas Ray’s unparalleled mastery of ‘Scope framing (check out what he does with the staircase in Mason’s home) and Technicolor (those yellow cabs!), combined with mise-en-scene that reconfigures American post-war prosperity as something nightmarish and oppressive, is perfectly suited to the melodramatic storyline. “God was wrong!”

9. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954)

Akira Kurosawa’s best film and arguably the greatest action movie ever made. A village of poor farmers learn they are about to be raided by bandits on account of their soon-to-arrive barley crop. They hire seven samurai to help them defend the village from attack, with nothing to offer in return but food and board. The first half of this massively influential three and a half hour chambara extravaganza is devoted to setting up the conflict and introducing the seven samurai as distinct and memorable personalities (with Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune deserving special honors for carving out indelible archetypal characters). Then, when the epic, rain and mud-soaked battle finally does arrive, it is impossible not to care deeply about the human cost of the outcome. Seven Samurai is to the samurai picture what The Searchers is to the western: the best film of its kind.

8. The Band Wagon (Minnelli, USA, 1953)

My own personal favorite musical is this Vincente Minnelli gem. Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is an over the hill hoofer whose latest show, a theatrical musical comedy, is hijacked by Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan), a pretentious director intent on turning it into a modern day version of Faust. Exacerbating the situation is that Hunter can’t stand Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse – never lovelier), the ballet dancer hired by Cordova to star opposite him. Sparks fly between Astaire and Charisse both off the dance floor and on, especially during such classic production numbers as “Dancing in the Dark,” “That’s Entertainment” and the film noir influenced “Girl Hunt.”

7. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959)

Billy Wilder’s crude, gender-bending comedy about a couple of down on their luck Chicago musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who disguise themselves as women to get a job in an all-female band headed to Florida. En route, they both develop the hots for singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe at her sultriest) but of course can’t reveal their true identities. Like a lot of classic Hollywood comedies, this hilarious romp works as well as it does because you can feel director and co-writer Billy Wilder trying his damndest to smuggle risque material past the censors. It’s no coincidence that his career went south when, just a few years later, there was nothing left to fight against.

6. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956)

Robert Bresson’s minimalist drama, based on the memoir of a real life French resistance fighter’s escape from a Gestapo prison, unforgettably conveys one man’s relentless desire to regain his freedom. Eschewing the easy thrills so common to the Hollywood treatment of this type of subject matter, Bresson instead zeroes in on the specific process of how Lieutenant Fontaine acquires, creates and utilizes the tools that enable his escape plan to work. The stringent use of close-ups of hands at work, accompanied by a use of heightened sound effects and an extensive employment of first person voice-over narration, draws the viewer into Fontaine’s world to an almost unbearable intense degree. This is on my short list of near-perfect movies.

5. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953)

Kenji Mizoguchi’s best-loved film is this unique ghost story/war movie/melodrama hybrid. In feudal wartime Japan, two men (a potter and a farmer) move from their home village to a city, hoping to become war profiteers, but tragically opt to leave their wives behind; as the men become wildly successful, one of the wives is murdered and the other is forced into a life of prostitution. The homecoming finale, which sees the protagonists as “sadder and wiser men,” is shattering. Mizoguchi’s ravishingly photographed fable of greed and ambition uses light, shadow and fog (not to mention those legendary crane shots) to perfectly complement his view of the world as a place of impossible moral choices.

4. Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958)

Alfred Hitchcock’s highly personal and deeply disturbing study of obsession, which unfolds like a dark and troubling dream. Jimmy Stewart is Scottie Ferguson, a retired cop with a fear of heights who agrees to work a job as a private eye at the request of an old friend. This involves tailing the friend’s wife (Kim Novak), with whom Ferguson falls hopelessly and dangerously in love. Hitchcock leads both Ferguson and the viewer into a downward spiral of despair, eventually ripping the lid off a Pandora’s box of sexual perversity containing voyeurism, fetishism and – as Hitchcock was happy to note – necrophilia. A career high point for all involved including Hitchcock, Stewart and composer Bernard Herrmann.

3. Journey to Italy (Rossellini, Italy, 1954)

My favorite Italian movie ever is this deceptively simple melodrama about a bored married couple (George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman) who travel to Naples following a death in the family. As they wander the city separately (she visits museums and the ruins of Pompeii, he flirts with the prospect of adultery), they take emotional stock of their lives for the first time in years, leading to one of the most spiritually uplifting finales in cinema. A film in which nothing and everything happens, this is the birth of cinematic modernism without which such diverse films as Antonioni’s L’avventura, Godard’s Contempt and Kiarostami’s Certified Copy would not be possible.

2. Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953)

Yasujiro Ozu’s supreme masterpiece tells the story of an elderly Japanese couple who travel from their rural hometown to visit their grown children in the title city, only to find that their children don’t have much time to spend with them and even treat them as a nuisance. Rather than condemn any of his characters the way you would expect a Hollywood melodrama to do, Ozu’s patient, observant, non-judgemental eye sees the disintegration of the family as the sad but natural order of the universe. The heart of the film is Ozu’s favorite actress Setsuko Hara as Noriko, the elderly couple’s daughter-in-law, whose smiling countenance seems to radiate an almost overwhelming warmth and humanity. When one embittered character tells her that life is disappointing, Noriko’s resigned, smiling response is “Yes, I’m afraid it is.” Sublime.

1. The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956)

Quite simply one of the greatest movie ever made, John Ford’s deeply felt western combines adventure, tragedy, comedy and romance in the story of Ethan Edwards (John Wayne in his best and most complex performance), a Civil War veteran who embarks on an obsessive, years-long quest to find his niece after she is kidnapped by Comanche Indians. Only what is he really searching for? His humanity? The Moby Dick of the cinema.


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