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Tag Archives: Citizen Kane

Ten Random Observations About Citizen Kane

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Citizen Kane is the movie I have seen more than any other. I have shown it well over 30 times in the past 5 years that I have been teaching film studies classes at the college level, and this is in addition to the dozens of times I watched it previously — in every conceivable format — going back to when I saw it for the first time on VHS at the age of 12. I would estimate I’ve now seen it more than 60 times, a number that will only increase exponentially as I continue to teach it over time. (I once tried teaching an “Intro to Film” class without screening it and it didn’t feel right; it was like teaching a class on the history of rock and roll and not discussing Elvis.)

Anyway, after watching a movie so many times, you begin to notice all kinds of funny things. Small things. Things that nobody would notice after only a few viewings. There are certain tiny details in the movie that you grow to appreciate and look forward to seeing with each successive viewing. Conversely, there are also certain aspects of the movie that you grow to dislike. This post is nothing but a collection of random and, I hope, amusing observations about Citizen Kane from a man who has, by any objective standard, viewed it too many times.

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1. Agnes Moorehead, who plays Mrs. Kane (Charlie’s mother) only appears in three shots in the entire movie. I’ve always noticed how the shots in which she appears are “long takes” but I never bothered to actually count them until recently. I was astonished to find that her scene consists of so few shots because her character is so important and makes such a big impression that it seems like she’s in many more shots than she is — and that her screen time is greater than it is.

2. Agnes Moorehead gives my favorite performance in the film. Like most of the rest of the cast, she was a theatrical actress making her motion-picture debut and, while one tends to think of theatrical acting as “broad” (since stage performers have to play to the proverbial “cheap seats”), her performance is the most naturalistic in the film. The best moment is when she says, in close-up, “I’ve got his trunk all packed. I’ve had it packed for a week now.” Her face betrays no emotion when she says this. Her line reading is almost entirely flat and neutral, and yet her voice becomes breathy and just the tiniest bit higher-pitched on the words “week now,” which indicates that her character is heartbroken at having to send her son away.

3. My least favorite line of dialogue, by a wide margin, is: “I’ve got to make the New York Inquirer as important to New York as the gas in that light.” Charles Foster Kane says this to his colleagues Bernstein and Leland after staying up all night preparing his first edition of the newspaper as its editor. He concludes the line by turning off the gaslight. This annoys me to no end because it’s the kind of “period dialogue” that nobody would ever actually say. Kane might as well have added, “It sure is great owning a newspaper in the 1890s!”

4. One of the funniest moments in the film is one I didn’t notice at all until I had seen it many times. When Kane gives his “Declaration of Principles” to Solly, the copy boy, and asks him to run it on the front page, Solly is smiling and seems bemused at having to “remake” the front page again at Kane’s insistence. Then, when Leland asks Solly to bring him the declaration after he’s done with it (because Leland feels it will become an historically important document), Solly turns to leave and visibly rolls his eyes. The implication is that Solly likes Kane but not Leland. Ever since noticing it for the first time, it’s a moment that never fails to make me laugh.

5. My favorite bit of acting from Orson Welles comes during his gubernatorial campaign speech, specifically the line, “I would make my promises now . . . if I weren’t too busy arranging to keep them!” The way Welles leans into the crowd, ingratiatingly smiling and nodding, as he delivers the “punchline” after the pregnant pause absolutely nails a very specific kind of obnoxious self-satisfaction and entitlement.

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6. There is one line in the film that is awkwardly dubbed, I suspect for censorship reasons. “Boss” Jim Gettys summons Kane and his wife to the home of Kane’s mistress, Susan Alexander, in the hopes of blackmailing his rival into quitting his gubernatorial campaign. At one point in the middle of a lengthy shot, Gettys says, “We got evidence that’ll look bad in the headlines. Do you want me to give you the evidence, Mr. Kane?” The first of these sentences was clearly overdubbed by Ray Collins, the actor playing Gettys, in post-production and it is obvious that the line he spoke on set was something completely different. If anyone knows what he originally said, and why the line was changed, please let me know!

7. Joseph Cotten is terrific as the young and middle-aged Jedediah Leland but not so good as the elderly Leland. I’m really not sure if this is a problem with Cotten’s acting or with the way his scenes were written and/or directed but the continuity of his character makes no sense to me. I understand that time slows some people down but how does the urbane and sophisticated Leland end up in a nursing home speaking with an exaggerated southern drawl? I’ve entertained the thought that perhaps Leland is putting on an “act” for Thompson, the reporter interviewing him: he does, after all, pretend to forget the name of Xanadu, Kane’s palatial estate. But Roger Ebert notes on the Blu-ray/DVD commentary track that Cotten was unhappy with his old-age makeup, which he felt had been rushed (is that why he’s wearing a visor?). I think it’s more likely that Cotten’s dissatisfaction with his make-up is somehow responsible for his less-than-stellar performance in the scene.

8. A great bit of non-verbal acting in this same scene: when Leland asks Thompson to bring him cigars wrapped up to “look like toothpaste or something,” the nurse who’s closest to Leland turns and shoots a knowing look at the other nurse present. Assuming Thompson does arrange for a delivery of cigars, there’s no way his package is making it past the hospital’s front desk.

9. Everything that Fortunio Bonanova (the actor who plays Matiste, the singing coach) says and does is hilarious.

10. Towards the end of the film, Susan is working on a jigsaw puzzle on the floor of a cavernous room in Xanadu. She asks Kane what time it is. He responds “Half past eleven.” She clarifies, “I mean in New York?” He responds, “Half past eleven.” Does this grown woman really not know that Florida and New York are in the same time zone?

Bonus track: Ever since becoming a teacher, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the notorious, screeching “eyeless” cockatoo. It never fails to wake up sleeping students:

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Top Ten Home Video Releases of 2011

2011 didn’t see me go on quite the same insane Blu-ray buying spree that last year did. Perhaps the fascination of watching movies, new and old, in the bold new HD format has started to wear off a little. But mostly I think this was because I made a short film myself this year, which of course sucked up a lot of my time, energy and money. Therefore, I’m including a list of “only” my top thirty-five favorite home video releases (as opposed to last year’s fifty) — comprised of a countdown of the top ten, each with a capsule review, and an alphabetical list of an additional 25 runners-up. As with last year, the rankings were arrived at by averaging out what I estimated to be the overall quality of the film, the quality of the image/sound transfer and the quality of the supplements. In the interest of diversity, I also limited myself to one film per distributor for my top ten.

Any videophiles reading this should feel free to chime in with their own favorites in the comments section below.

10. Our Hospitality (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)

Kino unleashed a hi-def Buster Keaton motherlode in 2011 — including a three-disc short films collection spanning the years 1920 – 1923, a double bill of Battling Butler and Go West and my personal favorite of the great clown’s works, 1923’s uproariously funny Our Hospitality. This inexhaustibly re-watchable stunt-filled comedy sees Keaton’s Willie McKay travel from New York to the rural south to claim an inheritance, unaware that he will soon be embroiled in both a romance and a Hatfield/McCoy-style feud. This is presented in an interlaced transfer (meaning “combing” is occasionally visible) in order to maintain the original speed at which the film was shot and the running time at which it was originally projected. (Although Kino, unlike Masters of Cinema with Coeur Fidele, could have released a superior, progressive-scan version if they had been willing to put in a lot of extra work). Still, this is the best Our Hospitality has ever looked on home video and I was particularly delighted to see it color-tinted for the first time.

9. The Terrorizers (Yang, Sony Pictures Blu-ray)

The most underrated title of the year — one that I didn’t even see rate a mention on the most popular Blu-ray review sites — is Sony’s Taiwanese release of Edward Yang’s 1986 masterpiece The Terrorizers, a terrific metaphysical mystery about the lives of three couples in Taipei that continually intersect over a span of several weeks. Yang is sometimes referred to as the “Chinese Antonioni” and if his debut That Day On the Beach is his L’avventura, then this more ambitious follow up is his Blow Up — a film with a surface thriller plot that is less important than the tantalizing questions regarding the connections between life and narrative at its core. I’ve never seen this movie in any other incarnation but Sony’s 1080i transfer is at least as impressive as their release of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Dust in the Wind from last year. The lush “1980s” color palette looks especially nice.

8. An Affair to Remember (McCarey, 20th Century Fox Blu-ray)

Leo McCarey’s final masterpiece charts the unlikely romance between a millionaire playboy (Cary Grant) and a night club singer (Deborah Kerr) who fall for each other on a cruise in spite of being engaged to other people. Wrongly labelled a saccharine “women’s weepie” (damn you, Sleepless in Seattle!), this actually starts off as a very funny screwball comedy (note the incredibly witty banter between Grant and Kerr on the boat) before gradually shifting to a sublime Frank Borzage-style romantic melodrama in its second half. But even the word “melodrama,” while apt in the literal sense, feels inappropriate for a film that can be as surprisingly delicate and understated as this. Written, directed and acted to perfection, this is as moving as movies get. Fox’s hi-def transfer of the original Technicolor elements is pleasing and true.

7. Jackie Brown (Tarantino, Lionsgate Blu-ray)

At the time it was released, many felt that this didn’t live up to the expectations generated by the phenomenal success of Quentin Tarantino’s previous outing, Pulp Fiction, from three years earlier. Today, Jackie Brown, a low-key adaptation of an Elmore Leonard crime novel about a flight attendant’s attempt to beat a money-smuggling rap, looks like the better movie. It’s an intricately plotted yarn that masks its complexity with relaxed pacing, delicious dialogue and the warm affection that Tarantino extends to all of his characters. And there are career best performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster and Pam Grier. Shot by the great Guillermo Navarro, this exercise in retro-70s cool looks and sounds (The Delfonics!) better than ever on Lionsgate’s extras-laden Blu-ray. Did I mention you can get this on Amazon for just $10.99?

6. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Artificial Eye Blu-ray)

The Criterion Collection owns the U.S. home video rights to Abbas Kiarostami’s latest and greatest but have apparently decided to sit on it until at least 2012. Therefore, I’m exceedingly grateful to the U.K. label Artificial Eye for putting out this region-free Blu-ray and letting me have a chance to revisit my favorite theatrical film of 2011. Upon further viewing, I’m less convinced this is any sort of “puzzle film” at all but rather an allegory about the difficulty of communication between Man and Woman (as embodied by William Shimell and Juliette Binoche) in the modern world. Shot on the RED One camera, the digital-to-digital transfer done for this disc is unimpeachable. Also contains a fascinating, feature-length making-of doc, Let’s See Copia Conforme. A special thank you to Jessica for the gift.

5. L’Age d’Or / Un Chien Andalou (Bunuel, BFI Blu-ray)

Luis Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou and his feature length follow-up L’age d’Or, arguably the two most important Surrealist films of all time, were never intended to look or sound all that pristine. In fact, their technical crudity is just one of the strategies Bunuel implemented to intentionally piss off his original audience. Nonetheless, these delirious sex-and-death obsessed fever dreams, full of hilarious, provocative digressions and repeated attacks on both church and state, look and sound better than I ever thought possible. Even the damage caused by the ravages of time is more visible due to BFI’s impressive 1080p transfer — and I have a feeling that’s just the way Don Luis would’ve wanted it. “Slicin’ up eyeballs, oh-ho-ho-ho-ho!” L’age d’Or essay here.

4. The Strange Case of Angelica (de Oliveira, Cinema Guild Blu-ray)

The brilliant Portugese director Manoel de Oliveira makes his hi-def debut with this incredible package from Cinema Guild that contains both his very first film, 1931’s Douro, Faina Fluvial as well as his most recent, 2010’s The Strange Case of Angelica. The earlier movie is an extremely impressive, fast-paced avant-garde documentary short about working class life in Porto (Oliveira’s hometown) while the latter is a slow, stately CGI-buttressed masterpiece about a photographer who falls in love with a beautiful but inconveniently dead young woman after being commissioned by her family to photograph the corpse. It’s no exaggeration to say that, taken together, these films, made 80 years apart, contain the totality of cinema.

3. The Complete Jean Vigo Collection (Vigo, Criterion Blu-ray)

As with BFI’s Bunuel release, Criterion has seemingly done the impossible by taking Jean Vigo’s beloved films of the late silent/early sound era, which have been kicking around forever in poor quality versions, and managed to make them look sparkling and fresh and new. L’atalante in particular is a revelation; it has always been the most modern-looking movie of its era because of its unabashed eroticism as well as its incredibly striking sense of composition (courtesy of ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman). Rounding out the set are all of Vigo’s other movies: Taris (a short experimental documentary about a swimmer), A Propos de Nice (one of the most poetic and playful of all city symphony films) and his immortal tribute to anarchic youth, Zero de Conduite. Vigo was a visionary genius who left this world far too soon. But his films will live forever and, thanks to Criterion, can now be readily experienced under the optimum conditions they should be. L’atalante essay here.

2. Citizen Kane 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector’s Edition (Welles, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)

Citizen Kane finally gets the home video treatment it deserves courtesy of Warner Bros.’ staggeringly elaborate new box set, which includes by far the most film-like (and thus best ever) presentation it has seen in terms of image and sound. It also includes a handsomely-produced hardback book about the making of the film, postcards, an excellent quality DVD of Welles’ follow-up The Magnificent Ambersons (its North American digital debut) and a whole host of other goodies that I won’t be able to finish going through until probably late into 2012. To paraphrase Mr. Thatcher, I wish I were a little boy watching this movie for the first time in this particular edition! Full review here.

1. Coeur Fidele (Epstein, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)

Jean Epstein’s Impressionist classic from 1923 is the midway point between the Victorian melodrama of D.W. Griffith and the Surrealist-inflected romance of Jean Vigo’s L’atalante. The plot concerns a love triangle between working class characters but it’s the rapturously beautiful cinematography and poetic use of dissolves — most notably during the famous “carousel sequence” — that lift this movie up to heaven’s door. Masters of Cinema’s glorious HD transfer (which involved painstaking work to ensure that the film would run at the correct speed) of Gaumont’s impeccable photochemical restoration makes this my favorite Blu-ray release not just of the year but of all time. Discovering a major masterpiece like this just when I thought I’d seen it all is the kind of thing that makes life worth living.

Runners-Up (alphabetical by title)

11. All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 20th Century Fox Blu-ray)
12. Army of Shadows (Melville, Criterion Blu-ray)
13. An Autumn Afternoon / A Hen in the Wind (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
14. Equinox Flower / There Was a Father (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
15. Good Morning / I Was Born But . . . (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
16. The Horse Soldiers (Ford, MGM Blu-ray)
17. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. Late Autumn / A Mother Should Be Loved (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
19. Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, Warner Bros. Blu-ray)
20. The Naked Kiss (Fuller, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
21. Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone, Paramount Blu-ray)
22. People On Sunday (Ulmer/Siodmak, Criterion Blu-ray)
23. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Criterion Blu-ray)
24. Pulp Fiction (Tarantino, Lionsgate Blu-ray)
25. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, Criterion Blu-ray) Essay here.
26. Senso (Visconti, Criterion Blu-ray)
27. Shock Corridor (Fuller, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
28. The Social Network (Fincher, Sony Pictures Blu-ray) More here.
29. Solaris (Tarkovsky, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
30. Some Like it Hot (Wilder, MGM Blu-ray)
31. The Stranger (Welles, HD Cinema Classics Blu-ray)
32. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, Sony Blu-ray)
33. Touch of Evil (Welles, Eureka/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
34. Way Down East (Griffith, Kino Blu-ray) Full review here.
35. Yi Yi (Yang, Criterion Blu-ray)


2011: The Year of the Orson

Today’s post, in which I bestow a “filmmaker of the year honor,” establishes a new tradition following last year’s tribute to Fritz Lang. It is also the first of three posts offering a round-up of the year in movies. Over the next two weeks I will also be posting lists of my favorite home video and theatrical releases of 2011.

This year White City Cinema’s Filmmaker of the Year honor is bestowed on Orson Welles, one of the all-time great directors and someone whose work seems to be in a perpetual state of restoration, re-release and rediscovery. 2011 saw the blu-ray debuts of Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil in mind-bogglingly elaborate box sets and The Stranger in a serviceable public domain job, as well as the first ever North American DVD release of The Magnificent Ambersons. In addition to purchasing all of these titles, I also showed Citizen Kane as part of a day-long seminar I gave to teachers at Facets Multimedia in July. (The subject? “How to Teach Hollywood Masterpieces in the Classroom.”) For these reasons, there was no other film director I spent more time watching, thinking about and wrestling with in 2011 than Orson Welles.

The visionary nature of Welles’ genius marked him as a man ahead of his time and, since his death in 1985, film critics, scholars and fans have all been playing catch up. While it was once commonplace to hear critics chalk up the plethora of unfinished Welles projects to some kind of “fear of completion” (usually tied to assumptions about Welles’ insecurity about living up to the early promise of Citizen Kane), history has since taken a kinder view of the twilight years of the boy genius from Kenosha. The 1995 documentary Orson Welles: The One Man Band, included on Criterion’s 2005 DVD release of F for Fake, provided many Welles fans a tantalizing first glimpse of the tangled mess of unfinished movies Welles worked on in the last couple decades of his life, many of them of obviously high artistic quality. Recent books by Jonathan Rosenbaum (Discovering Orson Welles, 2006) and Joseph McBride (What Ever Happened to Orson Welles?, 2007) examine this work in detail, giving a more well-rounded view of Welles’ career as a whole. They also indicate that the primary reason for the unfinished nature of this work was a lack of money and resources. The fact that Welles was able to remain as prolific as he was is nothing less than a testament to his love for the act of filmmaking.

But even Welles’ earlier work, including the one movie he inarguably had complete creative control over, has been the subject of controversy. As I pointed out several months ago, Citizen Kane has been released in multiple VHS and DVD editions over the years that have failed to do justice to its original, revolutionary visual style. The new Warner Bros. blu-ray happily corrects the most egregious problems associated with previous editions by aiming for a greater film-like look. Welles’ last Hollywood masterpiece, Touch of Evil, a movie that was re-edited and partially re-shot against his wishes, was restored in 1998 as closely as possible to the director’s original intentions. And yet when Universal attempted to take a completist approach to Touch of Evil for their 50th Anniversary DVD edition in 2008 by including three different cuts of the film, they still courted controversy by only including it in a widescreen aspect ratio that some claimed was not the way it was meant to be seen. The new Eureka/Masters of Cinema blu-ray of Touch of Evil attempts to cover all bases by including five versions – all three of the extant cuts, two of which are presented in different aspect ratios: the academy (or television) ratio of 1.37:1 as well as the widescreen 1.85:1.

That the world can’t get enough of Welles now is ironic considering the tattered state of the director’s legacy in his own lifetime. (And there would be even more Welles releases on the market today if not for the intervention of his litigation-happy daughter Beatrice. She is now the only thing preventing the release of The Other Side of the Wind, Welles’ final unreleased movie.) It is tempting to invoke a parallel between Welles and Charles Foster Kane; like Thompson, the reporter in Kane who ends the film “playing with the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle,” movie lovers too must sift through the films of Orson Welles, whether finished, unfinished or in multiple versions, none of which can be called definitive, in order to best understand and appreciate his artistry as a director. I would argue that the very act of familiarizing oneself with the Welles canon is akin to conducting an investigation. However, the “solution” that each viewer comes to is likely to be different. Unlike, say, Alfred Hitchcock, whose authorial persona remains more stable and fixed in the minds of cinephiles, with each passing year Welles’ identity seems to multiply like the infinite reflections of Charles Foster Kane standing between two mirrors in the hallway of Xanadu. There are probably as many Orsons as there are viewers.

It should be a no-brainer for movie buffs to pick up the Citizen Kane and Touch of Evil blu-ray sets. The former is a cinephile’s paradise and includes among its many supplements the aforementioned DVD of The Magnificent Ambersons. The latter is available only as a “region B”-locked import, but it alone would justify the purchase of a multi-region blu-ray player. However, as those releases have already been written about ad nauseum elsewhere, I’d like to end this appreciation by offering a shout out to an outfit named “HD Cinema Classics” for putting out a blu-ray of The Stranger, a terrific minor Welles film from 1946 that has long been in the public domain. While today The Stranger technically belongs to the library of MGM, a studio notoriously reticent to release catalogue titles and who have no plans to offer a blu-ray of their own anytime soon, we should all be grateful that someone took a 35mm print, no matter how imperfect, and made a high-definition transfer from it. While HD Cinema Classics clearly don’t have access to the same high quality source materials that MGM does, I think their release should also be an essential purchase for Welles enthusiasts, especially considering its reasonable amazon price tag of only $11.99.

The Stranger has long been condescendingly referred to by film historians as the movie Welles made to prove he could direct something commercial and conventional but it is actually much better (and more Wellesian) than that reputation would suggest. In the first of a cycle of memorable Welles films noirs, the director himself plays Franz Kindler, an ex-Nazi who travels to America and starts a new life as a schoolteacher named Charles Rankin in a sleepy Connecticut town. Hot on his heels is Edward G. Robinson as Mr. Wilson, a Nazi hunter for the U.S. government who must uncover Rankin’s true identity in spite of the disbelief of the stranger’s new acquaintances – including his fiance Mary (the lovely Loretta Young). The Stranger features several exciting set pieces, most notably an action climax set atop a bell tower, all of which are rendered in gorgeous high-contrast black and white by cinematographer Russell Metty who would later shoot Touch of Evil. But the film’s most memorable scene is a quieter one, a dinner table dialogue in which Rankin/Kindler accidentally lets his mask slip by denying that Karl Marx was a German because he also happened to be a Jew. It’s a little master class in acting that foreshadows the more famous fascist sentiments of Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man two years later.

When all of the legal disputes have been settled and The Other Side of the Wind finally does see a proper release, there still remains the question of how the film should be “finished.” Since no definitive cut is possible, who will be charged with the unenviable task of deciding “what Orson would have wanted”? Since there has already been some infighting on this very subject by Welles’ former collaborators, I think the sensible thing would be to have the film completed in multiple versions overseen by different editors with consciously different approaches in mind. I’d buy a mammoth blu-ray box set of that.


Now Playing: J. Edgar

J. Edgar
dir. Clint Eastwood, 2011, USA

Rating: 9.0

The bottom line: The year’s best love story.

Now playing in theaters everywhere is J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s 33rd film as a director and, judging by the reviews so far, his most critically divisive. It currently has a shockingly low rating of 41% on the popular critical aggregate site rottentomatoes.com, in spite of the fact that it has received raves from a lot of America’s most prestigious critics, including Roger Ebert, The Village Voice‘s J. Hoberman, MSN‘s Glenn Kenny, The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis and Artforum‘s Amy Taubin. This split decision means that J. Edgar is virtually guaranteed to be shut out during this year’s awards season, which is regrettable because it arguably represents a career high point for everyone involved – screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (whose smart, ambitiously non-chronological script shows a dazzling complexity that advances on his Oscar-winning Milk from two years ago), Leonardo DiCaprio (who gives what Taubin has rightly referred to as his best performance “as an adult”) and Eastwood (who can count this alongside of Unforgiven and Letters from Iwo Jima as one of his three best movies). Where then does the critical antipathy come from? I believe that examining the criticisms that have been hurled at the film so far should also provide some insight into why some other observers, including me, regard it as a masterpiece.

From a formal standpoint, J. Edgar is easily the most complex film Clint Eastwood has ever made. Black’s screenplay spans J. Edgar Hoover’s 48 years as the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a time frame that saw him serve under eight U.S. Presidents, positing him, in the words of the film’s tagline, as the “most powerful man in the world.” Black and Eastwood’s ingenious narrative structure recounts Hoover’s life as a series of flashbacks as he dictates his memoirs as an elderly man in the late 1960s to a series of junior FBI agents – including one who pointedly looks like Barack Obama, one of the film’s many references to American life in the 21st century. These early expositional scenes contain reams of names, dates and places, thrown at the viewer with lightning speed, sometimes through the dialogue and other times through Hoover’s voice over narration. This is not the relaxed pacing we’ve come to expect from Eastwood but something that feels closer to the “sea of information” approach of David Fincher’s Zodiac and The Social Network instead. For many critics, the sheer arduousness of this exposition, which I argue will handsomely pay off for the patient moviegoer, is strike one against J. Edgar.

What is not immediately apparent is the extent to which the flashbacks are meant to represent Hoover’s own highly revisionist and self-aggrandizing version of the events of his life. This is slyly hinted at (but only hinted at) early on in a scene where Hoover is being questioned at a Congressional briefing about his supposed cooperation with the production of comic books and Hollywood movies to promote a more romantic image of the FBI. The full extent of the film’s tricky subjectivity doesn’t register until the final act when Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s “number two man” and longtime companion (brilliantly played by The Social Network‘s Armie Hammer), explicitly denounces what viewers have been led to believe is the “truth” of Hoover’s memoirs. If, as Tolson claims, there was no white horse at the scene of an early FBI raid, if Hoover himself wasn’t responsible for arresting Bruno Hauptmann, the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, then how much of the rest of these flashbacks, which constitute the bulk of the narrative, are we supposed to take at face value? (I guess by the time of Tolson’s denunciation, most critics have checked out of the film anyway.) Imagine a version of Citizen Kane where Kane himself narrates his life story and you’ll have some idea of what Eastwood and Black are up to. Incredibly, some critics have claimed that the film is “overprotective” of its title character or that it somehow “soft pedals” the Hoover story. Even while Eastwood extends sympathy to his protagonist on a personal level, I can’t imagine a more damning indictment of the man’s deeds; his abuses of power and violations of civil liberties are meant to be disturbing even during his glory years, long before his insane harassment of Martin Luther King.

Many critics have drawn parallels between J. Edgar and Kane not only because of the flashback structure and the story arc of an idealistic young man tragically corrupted by power, but also because of the extensive use of makeup and prosthetics. Whether intentionally or not, DiCaprio as old Hoover looks strikingly like Orson Welles as old Kane and most of the barbs aimed at J. Edgar have come from critics unfavorably comparing the former to the latter. The best rejoinder to this criticism comes from Taubin who compares the J. Edgar makeup to what one would find in an “amateur production of Tennessee Williams where the actors are 20 years too young for the roles they are playing, but nevertheless their struggles move you to tears.” I too find the performances of DiCaprio, Hammer and even Naomi Watts (as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s fiercely loyal secretary) moving precisely because I am aware of the actors being “too young” in much the same way that I am moved by the flashbacks in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another great memory film, precisely because John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are “too old.” I would go so far as to say that Hoover’s old age makeup is meant to look like make-up in a film whose main character always wore a figurative mask and whose motto was “we must never lower our guard.” Think that’s a stretch? Consider that the first shot we see of Hoover in the movie immediately follows a close-up of John Dillinger’s death mask on the FBI director’s office desk.

Most of the praise that the film has received, even from its detractors, has been aimed at Leonardo DiCaprio’s bravura lead performance, and rightfully so; in much the same way that we are aware of the old age makeup, we are also acutely aware at all times of DiCaprio behind Hoover. This is as it should be. As a director, Clint Eastwood has gotten a lot of mileage out of manipulating his own iconic persona as an actor. Gran Torino, for instance, is enriched by our understanding that we are watching not only the character of “Walt Kowalski” as the film’s inevitable climax approaches, but also Dirty Harry and even Unforgiven‘s Will Munny. Here, Eastwood does something similar with DiCaprio’s persona; the post-Titanic penchant DiCaprio has shown for playing intensely neurotic, obsessive-compulsive characters reaches its apex in a scene where J. Edgar Hoover, following his mother’s instructions, stares into a mirror and repeats the mantra “I’m a proficient, remarkable lad capable of proficient and remarkable feats. I’m a proficient, remarkable lad capable of proficient and remarkable feats . . .” At this moment we are looking not only at Hoover but DiCaprio and Howard Hughes, a multiplicity that makes the film more resonant.

It is in the more intimate scenes, alternating between Hoover and his mother (a terrific Judi Dench) and between Hoover and Tolson, that Eastwood reveals the film’s surprisingly poignant emotional core – especially since these scenes can be seen to inform each other in a subtle dialectical play: Mrs. Hoover telling her beloved Edgar that she’d “rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son” is a disturbing but bracingly believable explanation for why Hoover and Tolson, even as grown men in the privacy of their own homes, are incapable of consummating their platonic love affair. (Some critics have bizarrely claimed that the film is “ambiguous” in its treatment of Hoover’s sexuality. It strikes me as inarguable that the film presents Hoover unambiguously as a repressed homosexual who is incapable of acting on his desires.) Even after Mrs. Hoover’s death, the specter of her domineering presence can be felt in the furnishing of her Victorian bedroom, which we see her son has immaculately preserved for decades, in one of the film’s several nods to Psycho, right up until the moment of his own death. But the film’s true emotional climax comes a little ealier, in the staid final scene between Hoover and Tolson as old men; the frontal compositions, marvelous underplaying of the actors and patently restrained Eastwood score put me in the mind of nothing so much as the transcendental final scene of Dreyer’s Gertrud, another masterpiece unjustly criticized for “theatricality” in its day.

Technically, J. Edgar is a tour de force. The low-key lighting and desaturated color palette of Tom Stern’s cinematography perfectly reflect the shadowy morality of Hoover’s universe. The period details of James Murakami’s sets and Deborah Hopper’s costumes, from the 1920s to the 1960s, all feel impeccably right. And the tight, highly compressed quality of the zig-zagging narrative (the two hour and seventeen minute running time was pared down by Eastwood and his longtime editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach from an initial three hour cut) always feels supremely confident. Like Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, J. Edgar offers an audacious mix of darkness, intelligence and complexity aimed at adult viewers that may seem out of step with contemporary critical tastes, but it also seems destined to age exceedingly well with time.


Blu Rosebud

Warner Brothers’ newly released “Ultimate Collector’s Edition” of Citizen Kane, a magnificent Blu-ray package timed to coincide with the film’s 70th anniversary, is one of the most significant home video releases of all time and a must-buy for anyone who loves movies. Not only is this the definitive presentation of the film widely regarded as the greatest ever made (making up for several previously botched VHS and DVD releases), it also comes stuffed with copious supplemental materials. Some of these extras are admittedly worthless BUT among the goodies is a DVD of The Magnificent Andersons, Orson Welles’ great follow-up to Kane and a movie previously unavailable in any digital format in the United States. This release also provides me with a good excuse to finally blog about a film I’ve shown in the majority of my Intro to Film classes but never actually written about; it seems a daunting challenge to put fingers to keypad when the subject is an ivory tower masterpiece with mountains of published criticism already devoted to it. Nonetheless, here goes . . .

Let’s start by examining the film’s reputation as a colossal work not just of cinema but of twentieth century art and why it has been deemed worthy of the bells-and-whistles treatment from the good folks in the classics division of Warner Home Video. What is it that makes Citizen Kane so innovative and groundbreaking and massively influential? Two things: the visual style and the narrative structure. In terms of style, Citizen Kane is remarkable in that it shows the influence of almost all of the major historical film movements that had received international distribution up to the time of its release (it’s been noted that Citizen Kane was the first movie directed by someone who had obviously studied the history of cinema). And since Orson Welles had travelled the globe as a precocious young man while dabbling in several artistic mediums, he was already well-versed in these international film trends. It is therefore easy to note the influence on Kane of movements as far-flung as:

Narrative Continuity – Welles studied the rules of narrative continuity filmmaking before making Citizen Kane. Specifically, he studied John Ford’s Stagecoach, a particularly beautiful example of a classical narrative movie. While preparing Kane, Welles screened Stagecoach every day for over a month and watched it with different members of his crew each time. Throughout the screenings, Welles would ask his technicians questions to try and figure out how Ford had put his movie together. It was from Stagecoach that Welles learned the basic rules of narrative continuity (how to shoot and edit a scene so that time, space and action continue smoothly from one shot to the next). It may also have been the inspiration for Citizen Kane‘s much commented upon low angle shots, in which the ceilings of the sets are clearly visible, a rarity for the time.

German ExpressionismCitizen Kane features the most artful and self-conscious instances of high contrast and low-key lighting, courtesy of ace cinematographer Gregg Toland, that had ever been seen in a Hollywood film up to 1941. A good example is the scene that occurs in a screening room early in the movie when a group of reporters converse about a newsreel on the life of the late Charles Foster Kane. The contrast between the light and dark areas in the frame of every shot in this scene is extremely dramatic with the faces of each character intentionally hidden by shadows even while the light from the projector behind them is blindingly white. This is also the audience’s introduction to the character of Thompson, the reporter who will spend the rest of the film interviewing Kane’s closest living acquaintances to complete the documentary. Fittingly, we will never clearly see Thompson’s face throughout the movie, a strategy that allows Welles to posit this character as a surrogate for the viewer.

Soviet Montage – Welles was familiar with the the Soviet Montage films of the 1920s (as evidenced by his rapidly edited debut short The Hearts of Age) and Citizen Kane features several impressive montage scenes. The most beloved is probably the exceedingly clever breakfast table montage where the disintegration of the marriage between Kane and his first wife Emily is condensed into a two minute sequence spanning many years. In the first part of the scene, Kane and his new bride are sitting virtually side-by-side and engaging in flirtatious banter. Here, Kane looks like the impossibly young and dashingly handsome man that Welles was. Then, as the scene progresses and the convincing middle-age make-up is piled on, the distance between Kane and Emily, both physical and emotional, increases to the point where the characters are no longer speaking but reading rival newspapers in icy silence instead. The depressing nature of the scene is effectively offset by the wittiness of Welles’ staging and cutting.

French Poetic Realism – Poetic Realism, a movement that defined itself in opposition to Soviet Montage in terms of style, was predicated on long takes and long shots. Citizen Kane has these qualities in spades, which is unsurprising given Welles’ fondness for the films of Jean Renoir (Welles once cited Grand Illusion as his favorite movie of all time); but Welles’ predilection for deep-focus cinematography saw him push the style to an operatic extreme that even Renoir would have never dreamed of attempting. A newly released super-fast film stock allowed for a greater depth of field than ever before and Welles took full advantage by composing images in which important visual information would appear simultaneously in the extreme foreground and extreme background of a shot. A good example is the dialogue scene between Walter Thatcher and Mr. and Mrs. Kane inside of a boarding house in which young Charlie can be observed playing in the snow through a window in the distance behind them.

Documentary FilmCitizen Kane bears the influence of the documentary/non-fiction mode of filmmaking, especially in its opening faux-newsreel sequence “News on the March” (a parody of the “March of Time” newsreels of the day). Welles’ masterful employment of specific aesthetic qualities associated with this mode of filmmaking (jump-cuts, heavily scratched footage, handheld camera shots, etc.) conveys a sense of realism while also greatly adding to the visual wit of the film.

In terms of narrative, Citizen Kane also had a more complex and intricate flashback structure than what had ever been seen in a Hollywood movie up to that point. The bulk of the narrative is taken up by five lengthy flashback sequences. The film begins with the death of its protagonist, Charles Foster Kane, and then skips back over his life in non-chronological order as Thompson listens to (and in one case reads) the reminiscences of those who were closest to him. These recollections serve as the catalysts for the flashbacks, which allow Welles to cleverly introduce the idea of the unreliable narrator. That is to say, none of the five flashbacks necessarily represent the way things “really happened”; instead, they represent the way each character remembers them happening. Notice, for instance, how much more likable Kane is in Mr. Bernstein’s recollection of him than in that of Mr. Leland. Another function of the flashbacks is to allow for abrupt shifts in tone. Throughout Citizen Kane, as we jump from one point-of-view to another, we also jump from one film genre to another. Among the many genres encompassed by Kane are: the biopic (the rise and fall of a great man who bears a strong resemblance to a real life figure), the newspaper reporter movie (a popular genre in the ’30s and ’40s in which a reporter attempts to uncover the truth in pursuit of a story), the mystery (who or what is Rosebud?), the backstage musical (Susan Alexander preparing for her opera debut is similar to the “hey, we’re putting on a show”-type of musicals popular in the ’30s) and even the romantic comedy (a meet-cute involving Kane, Susan and a mud-splattering, horse-drawn carriage).

However, as innovative as Kane remains in terms of both form and content, it also crucially remains a hell of a lot of fun to watch. If it were merely an academic exercise in, say, giving viewers a guided tour through the history of world cinema, it likely would not have achieved the enduring popularity it has enjoyed with both the critics and the public alike. The film’s innovations are all rooted in a sense of excitement and wonder concerning the capabilities of the medium (note the clever logic behind virtually every scene transition, whether visual or aural, in the entire movie). This is no doubt why Pauline Kael said that it may be “more fun than any great movie I can think of.”

Warner Brothers’ high-definition digital transfer of Citizen Kane greatly improves upon all previous home video releases. This includes a 50th anniversary VHS edition “supervised” by editor Robert Wise that appeared overly bright and had purists complaining about attempts to “normalize” the film’s radical style as well as a 60th anniversary DVD edition in which fine object detail was lost due to an overzealous “restoration.” The Blu-ray corrects both problems by presenting Kane the way it was meant to look: with blacks rich and inky in the high contrast sequences, with incredible clarity and detail visible in all shots (including a restoration of the rain falling outside of Bernestein’s window that had been notoriously scrubbed off of the previous DVD) and a nice sheen of film grain over everything. The soundtrack is wisely presented only as a lossless rendering of the original mono track. No attempts to create a new 5.1 surround track could improve upon Welles’ glorious, incredibly innovative original mono mix in which a creative use of sound effects, a superb Bernard Herrmann score (his first!), and the mellifluous voices of some of the greatest theatrical and screen actors of all time jockey for the viewer’s attention. It is simply impossible for me to imagine this greatest of American films ever looking or sounding better on a home theater system. If that sounds hyperbolic, well, sometimes only hyperbole will do.


A Golden Age of Hollywood Primer, pt. 1

Trying to pare down several decades worth of treasures from Hollywood’s golden age to a list of essential titles was for me virtually impossible. The “studio system era,” lasting from roughly the dawn of the talkie in the late 1920s through the dissolution of the monopoly the studios held on the industry in the late 1950s, was characterized by an assembly line approach to film production that, perhaps paradoxically, proved particularly fertile for the notion of the director as auteur. This diverse and prolific period, which I study the way some art historians study the Renaissance, is just too rich. Nevertheless, I tried! Making my job easier was the decision to “supersize” the list to include 26 titles, which I’ll be splitting across two posts. Also helping out were a few self-imposed rules, such as including only one film per director and only including films produced by the major studios (thus leaving out Poverty Row gems like Edgar Ulmer’s Detour). I also tried to be well-rounded in terms of covering all of the major genres and stars of the era. While it simply wasn’t possible to make the list comprehensive, anyone wanting to become well-versed in classic Hollywood cinema should eventually check out all of the titles below.

The list is in chronological order. Part one encompasses the years 1930 – 1947:

Morocco (von Sternberg, Paramount, 1930)

Hot on the heels of their German masterpiece The Blue Angel, director Joseph von Sternberg and star Marlene Dietrich re-teamed for this luminously photgraphed fantasy, the latter’s first Hollywood film. The story concerns the doomed love affair between a cabaret singer (Dietrich) and a good-for-nothing French Legionnaire (Gary Cooper, impossibly young and even a little sexy) in the exotic title country. Dietrich memorably performs in drag and even kisses a female audience member on the lips in this outrageously entertaining pre-Code melodrama.

Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, Paramount, 1932)

Another German emigre, director Ernst Lubitsch, inaugurated his mature period with this elegant, witty and sophisticated comedy about a love triangle between a master thief (Herbert Marshall), a female pickpocket (Miriam Hopkins) and the wealthy businesswoman they are both trying to fleece (Kay Francis). Not only a hilarious film but a very beautiful one; if you want to know what the famous “Lubitsch touch” is all about, this is the best place to start.

Modern Times (Chaplin, United Artists, 1936)

Charlie Chaplin’s last film to feature his “Little Tramp” persona and his first sound film is also, fittingly, the first to pull him out of the Victorian era and into an industrial, recognizably twentieth century landscape. Modern Times masterfully blends comedy and pathos in a series of vignettes as the Tramp and a “gamin” (Paulette Godard, Chaplin’s best leading lady) attempt to find jobs and work toward a brighter future while simultaneously avoiding the cops and a juvenile officer. This contains some of Chaplin’s best known slapstick gags including the opening assembly line scene, in which the Tramp is run through the cogs of a giant machine; on Criterion’s blu-ray edition, the Dardennes brothers note that this image uncannily resembles film running through a projector.

Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, Paramount, 1937)

The Pere Goriot of the cinema: unable to meet their mortgage payments, a retired married couple (Beulah Bondi and Broadway actor Victor Moore) lose possession of their house and are forced to split up and be shuttled between the homes of their ungrateful grown children. A fascinating look at Depression era America in the days before social security, Leo McCarey’s subtle and perceptive film was also clear influence on Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Also a strong candidate for the title of saddest movie ever made.

Bringing Up Baby (Hawks, RKO, 1938)

Cary Grant is an uptight, work-obsessed paleontologist who finds his world turned upside down by zany, free-spirited socialite Katherine Hepburn. After meeting cute on a golf course, a series of mishaps ensues culminating with the pair escorting a leopard to her aunt’s house in the country. Howard Hawks’ masterpiece is the quintessential screwball comedy – a battle of the sexes love story that is fast-paced, ridiculous and very, very funny.

The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, Warner Brothers, 1939)

The conventions of the gangster movie crystallized in the early ’30s with the release of The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and Scarface. By decade’s end, director Raoul Walsh and star James Cagney, both specialists in the genre, delivered the definitive gangster movie with this epic and nostalgic look back at the rise and fall of the bootlegging industry. The way the narrative of The Roaring Twenties continually opens up to situate its events within a wider social context (from the first World War to the stock market crash of ’29) would exert a major influence on Martin Scorsese. And, as the heavy, Humphrey Bogart is a match for Cagney made in tough guy movie heaven.

Citizen Kane (Welles, RKO, 1941)

Orson Welles’ legendary film about the life of a newspaper tycoon loosely based on William Randolph Hearst was completed when its writer/director/star was just 26 years old. Revolutionary for both its deep focus cinematography and its intricate flashback structure, Citizen Kane also astonishes by capturing wide swaths of human experience in its two hour running time. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is the film most often cited by critics and historians as the greatest of all time.

Casablanca (Curtiz, Warner Brothers, 1942)

You must remember this: Humphrey Bogart as Rick Blaine, an American nightclub owner living in Morocco, whose cynical exterior conceals a sentimental heart; Ingrid Bergman as Ilsa Lund, the Norwegian woman he loved and lost in pre-War France, only to find again under less-than-ideal circumstances in the Vichy-controlled title city. Out of all the gin joints in the world, why did she have to walk into his?! Thank God for the sake of movie lovers that she did. They’ll always have Paris – and we’ll always have Casablanca.

The Seventh Victim (Robson, RKO, 1943)

Although made on a small budget and directed by Mark Robson (who is not generally considered an auteur), The Seventh Victim is essential to include as a representation of the cycle of poetic horror films churned out by RKO’s genius auteur-producer Val Lewton. The plot concerns a young woman’s investigation into her sister’s disappearance, which leads to the discovery of . . . a cult of devil worshipers in Greenwich Village! Creepy, atmospheric, delightfully ambiguous and way ahead of its time.

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, Paramount, 1944)

Writer/director Preston Sturges was to the American cinema what Mark Twain was to American literature: the greatest satirist of our mores and all that we hold sacred. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is his most subversive work, a cinematic powder-keg that does impressive narrative somersaults in order to illustrate the predicament of Trudy Kockenlocker (a name that makes me laugh just to type it). Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a small town girl who, in one long drunken night, meets, marries and gets knocked up by a soldier before he heads off to war – but wakes up the next morning unable to remember anything about him. Hilarity ensues when she turns to 4F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), her longtime admirer-from-afar, to help prevent the inevitable local scandal.

The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, MGM, 1946)

The best film ever made about returning soldiers being re-assimilated into American society, The Best Years of Our Lives avoids mawkishness while packing a heavyweight dramatic punch. Lead acting chores fall on Fredric March, Dana Andrews and the unforgettable non-actor Harold Russell, whose characters (representing the Army, Air Force and Navy, respectively) are ecstatic to be demobilized at the conclusion of WWII, only to have to navigate their own emotional minefields back home. Bring a box of kleenex.

It’s a Wonderful Life (Capra, RKO, 1946)

Forget about the overplayed highlights and endlessly parodied moments, It’s a Wonderful Life is a much darker film than its reputation would suggest; it is essentially the story of a man whose life’s ambitions have been thwarted at every turn, rendering him unable to realize his dreams and leading him to contemplate suicide on Christmas Eve. And while it’s true that Bedford Falls would have been worse off without George Bailey, have you considered that the rest of the world might have been better off had the enterprising young man left home like he wanted to? If it is ultimately an uplifting film that’s because, as Bob Dylan once sang, the darkest hour is just before the dawn. This is the film director Frank Capra and star Jimmy Stewart were born to make.

Out of the Past (Tourneur, RKO, 1947)

The ultimate film noir – a cynical, fatalistic crime movie with a gorgeous, shadowy visual style in which writer Daniel Mainwaring and director Jacques Tourneur create a dichotomy between: cool detective (Robert Mitchum) and hotheaded gangster (Kirk Douglas), good girl (Virginia Huston) and femme fatale (Jane Greer), idyllic small town and corrupt big city, day and night. Remade officially as Against All Odds and unofficially as A History of Violence.

To be continued . . .


Top 25 Films of the 1940s

25. The Ornamental Hairpin (Shimizu, Japan, 1941)

Hiroshi Shimizu’s film about a disparate group of vacationers staying at a hot springs resort for the summer starts off as a comedy and then wondrously, imperceptibly morphs into a poignant drama. The great Chishu Ryu (best known for his work with Ozu) plays a soldier who badly injures his foot when he steps on a hairpin in the communal bath. He later discovers that it was left behind by a beautiful young woman played by Kinuya Tanaka (best known for her work with Mizoguchi). When she returns to the resort to apologize, all of the guests speculate that love must be in the cards. But Shimizu, a master of subtlety, decides to steer the material in a more interesting direction. Released less than four months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, The Ornamental Hairpin contains fleeting references to to the war and the fact that Tanaka’s character is a geisha, lending touches of gravitas to another deceptively light Shimizu masterwork.

24. Meet Me in St. Louis (Minnelli, USA, 1944)

23. Going My Way (McCarey, USA, 1944)

bing crosby, gene lockhart & barry fitzgerald - going my way 1944

22. Colorado Territory (Walsh, USA, 1949)

21. Laura (Preminger, USA, 1944)

20. Notorious (Hitchcock, USA, 1946)

19. Children of Paradise (Carne, France, 1945)

The best collaboration of director Marcel Carne and writer Jacques Prevert is this epic tale of doomed love set in the world of 19th century theater. Baptiste is a mime who falls in love with aspiring actress Garance. His shyness prevents their affair from being consummated and they go their separate ways until, years later, fate brings them back together for one last shot at romance. Both the behind the scenes look at theater and the depiction of 19th century France are lovingly detailed and passionately executed. This is sometimes referred to as a French Gone with the Wind but it’s actually much better than even that would suggest. One of the all-time great French movies.

18. Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947)

The ultimate film noir – a cynical, fatalistic crime movie with a gorgeous, shadowy visual style in which writer Daniel Mainwaring and director Jacques Tourneur create a dichotomy between: cool detective (Robert Mitchum) and hotheaded gangster (Kirk Douglas), good girl (Virginia Huston) and femme fatale (Jane Greer), idyllic small town and corrupt big city, day and night. Remade officially as Against All Odds and unofficially as A History of Violence.

17. Brief Encounter (Lean, UK, 1945)

David Lean will probably always be best remembered for lavish, 70mm-photographed Oscar-friendly pictures like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago, but I think his relatively early Brief Encounter remains the high point of his career. It’s a minimalist story of adulterous love as “brief” and compressed as the later films are expansive and epic, and arguably all the more effective for it. The performances of Trevor Howard and doe-eyed Celia Johnson as the star-crossed lovers and the script by Noel Coward are all world class. In a memorable line of dialogue Celia’s Laura says “I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” If “violence” can be considered purely emotional then this is one of the most violent movies ever made.

16. Heaven Can Wait (Lubitsch, USA, 1943)

15. The Third Man (Reed, UK, 1949)

In Carol Reed’s classic British noir Joseph Cotton stars Holly Martins, a dime store novelist who travels to Vienna to visit childhood pal Harry Lime only to find that his friend has died in a mysterious accident. Martins’ belief that Lime was murdered inspires a personal investigation that leads him deep into the morally dubious heart of the postwar European black market as well as into a love affair with Lime’s beautiful girlfriend Anna (Alida Valli). Among the film’s unforgettable ingredients are the catchy zither score by Anton Karas, the legendary extended cameo by Orson Welles and the cinematography of Robert Krasker, whose use of dutch angles and chiaroscuro lighting make the rubble-strewn Viennese streets look positively lunar.

14. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1948)

13. Late Spring (Ozu, Japan, 1949)

Yasujiro Ozu kickstarted his great late period with this terrific drama about a young woman named Noriko (Setsuko Hara, playing the first of three Norikos for Ozu) who lives with her widower father (Chishu Ryu) and is reluctant to get married for fear of leaving him alone. Not only is this the first of the loose “Noriko trilogy” (even though Hara’s characters are different in each film), it also laid down the template that all of Ozu’s subsequent films would follow until his death in 1963: the themes of intergenerational conflict, familial love, loss and regret, wedded to a precise visual style favoring static, low angle compositions and long takes. The depth of feeling that arises from this marriage of form and content is simply unparalleled in cinema.

12. Ivan the Terrible Parts I and II (Eisenstein, Russian, 1944-1958)

ivan

11. Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945)

10. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (Sturges, USA, 1944)

Writer/director Preston Sturges was to the American cinema what Mark Twain was to American literature: the greatest satirist of our mores and all that we hold sacred. The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek is his most subversive work, a cinematic powder-keg that does impressive narrative somersaults in order to illustrate the predicament of Trudy Kockenlocker (a name that makes me laugh just to type it). Trudy (Betty Hutton) is a small town girl who, in one long drunken night, meets, marries and gets knocked up by a soldier before he heads off to war – but wakes up the next morning unable to remember anything about him. Hilarity ensues when she turns to 4F Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), her longtime admirer-from-afar, to help prevent the inevitable local scandal.

9. Day of Wrath (Dreyer, Denmark, 1943)

The first sound film that Carl Dreyer made in his native Denmark is this great work of art about religious intolerance, hypocrisy and persecution in the 17th century. While “witches” are being burned at the stake, a beautiful young woman marries an elderly pastor and then embarks on an affair with his son, leading to tragedy for everyone. This is no stolid “period drama” but rather a vital piece of filmmaking with incredibly atmospheric cinematography, restrained but razor sharp performances and a story that brims with obvious parallels to the question-and-torture methods of the Nazis. One of the essential films of its era.

8. Spring in a Small Town (Fei, China, 1948)

7. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, USA, 1946)

William Wyler’s hard-hitting film about returning war veterans readjusting to civilian life holds up extremely well today as an absorbing drama as well as a fascinating window into the myriad social issues facing ordinary, small town Americans in the mid-1940s. Gregg Toland’s deep focus photography and the large ensemble cast, including Frederic March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews, Teresa Wright and non-actor Harold Russell, are world-class.

6. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, UK, 1948)

As “The Archers,” Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger collectively wrote and directed the most extraordinary movies of the golden age of British cinema and The Red Shoes is their masterpiece. Taking its inspiration from a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale, this beautiful, visually baroque Technicolor extravaganza tells the story of a ballerina (Moira Shearer) who is torn between the desires of her heart and the quest for perfection in her craft. The highlight is the title ballet sequence, a fifteen minute scene employing dozens of dancers and over a hundred painted backdrops, shot and cut together as a thrilling spectacle of pure cinema. One of the great films about obsession. One of the great films about the artistic process. One of the great films period.

5. Casablanca (Curtiz, USA, 1942)

A strong candidate for the most entertaining movie ever made, Casablanca irresistibly weds the theme of self-sacrifice for a greater good to a love story set against a backdrop of wartime intrigue. Mix in Bogie and Bergman at their most iconic, deliciously witty dialogue, a cast of colorful supporting characters played by unforgettable character actors and the able craftsmanship of director Michael Curtiz and you have Exhibit A for anyone looking to understand the genius of Hollywood’s old studio system.

4. Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941)

Orson Welles’ legendary film about the life of a newspaper tycoon loosely based on William Randolph Hearst was completed when its writer/director/star was just 26 years old. Revolutionary for both its deep focus cinematography and its intricate flashback structure, Citizen Kane also astonishes by capturing wide swaths of human experience in its two hour running time. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this is the film most often cited by critics and historians as the greatest of all time.

3. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, Italy, 1948)

The definitive Italian Neorealist film remains a deceptively simple, emotionally overwhelming experience that must be seen by anyone who loves movies. Writer Cesare Zavattini and director Vittorio de Sica crafted the ultimately politically engaged drama with this tale of Antonio Ricci, an unemployed factory worker (non-actor Lamberto Maggiorani) who finds a job putting up posters around Rome that requires the use of a bicycle. After selling his bedsheets to get his bike out of hock, Antonio finds that his bicycle is tragically stolen, a turn of events that causes him to spend the day looking for the thief with the aid of his young son Bruno (Enzo Staioloa). A humanistic portrait of despair that has never been bettered.

2. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, 1941)

The failure of the Academy to award Best Picture of 1941 to Citizen Kane is often cited as definitive “proof” that the Oscars have always been out of touch – the cinematic equivalent of the Grammys not honoring Elvis, The Beatles or Bob Dylan for their best recorded work. However, as innovative and influential and great as Kane is, John Ford’s deeply moving portrait of life in a 19th century Welsh mining community is nearly as cinematically expressive and, for my money, the more emotionally affecting work. Ironically, How Green Was My Valley is very similar to Kane in its treatment of the theme of subjectivity; what we see is not after all objective reality but the romanticized memories of Irving Pichel’s offscreen narrator.

1. Letter From an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, USA, 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.


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