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Tag Archives: David Lean

A Classic British Cinema Primer

British cinema has arguably never gotten the critical respect it deserves – in part because the influential French critics of the 1950s (who would later become filmmakers themselves and form the backbone of the Nouvelle Vague) always had an irrational prejudice against it. As a critic, Francois Truffaut famously and snobbishly declared that there was an incompatibility between the very words “British” and “cinema,” and, decades later, Jean-Luc Godard used his magnum opus Histoire(s) du Cinema to unfairly attack the postwar British cinema for “doing what it has always done — nothing.” But as the list of titles below should make clear, the British cinema of the postwar years was a true golden age, a period in which a bunch of hard-working filmmakers were able to do good, unpretentious work. These films, a baker’s dozen, span the prewar years of the early sound era (mostly so that I could include Alfred Hitchcock) through the late 1950s, when British movies were made according to a studio system directly analogous to that of Hollywood. The 1960s saw the industry undergo a sea change with the relaxing of censorship laws and the introduction of Angry Young Men and Kitchen Sink Realism, but that will be the subject of another post . . . 

Again I’m limiting myself to one film per director in the interest of diversity. It should almost go without saying that anyone interested in classic British cinema should make it a point to see all of the major films of Hitchcock and Powell/Pressburger.

Night Mail (Watt/Wright, 1936)

Inspired by similar Soviet movies, this superb 25 minute documentary illustrates how mail is sorted, collected and delivered on a single “mail only” midnight train from London to Edinburgh. No mere educational film, this priceless time capsule captures the spirit of a vanished age even if its portrayal of dedicated, efficient government employees taking immense pride in their work is romanticized. The scene that demonstrates the innovative method of how mail bags are collected (without needing to slow down or stop the train) is shot and edited like a Hitchcock suspense sequence. Among the prodigiously talented people who worked on it were poet W.H. Auden, who wrote the excellent, rhyming verse narration, and composer Benjamin Britten, whose score, like Auden’s verse, works to emulate the sounds of a chugging locomotive. There are other British documentaries more famous than this, especially from the war years, but none strike me as being as quintessentially British as this.

The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, 1939)

It seems that 1935’s The 39 Steps has become the consensus pick for the masterpiece of Hitchcock’s British period but, while I do love that film unreservedly, I love this outrageously entertaining spy caper even more. While aboard a transcontinental train, Iris, a beautiful young Englishwoman, befriends Miss Froy, an elderly woman who mysteriously disappears. In a signature nightmarish paranoid/conspiracy theory plot, Hitchcock has all of the other passengers deny that Froy was ever on the train, which causes Iris to question her sanity. It’s up to Gilbert (Michael Redgrave in his screen debut), an unflappably witty ethnomusicologist, to help Iris get to the bottom of the mystery. This is one of Hitchcock’s most purely entertaining films, which is saying a lot, in part because of the colorful supporting players; I’m particularly fond of the hilarious slapstick brawl between Gilbert, Iris and a nefarious Italian magician. As someone who wore out his public domain VHS copy as a teenager, I am exceedingly grateful to the Criterion Collection for their impeccable 2011 blu-ray.

Henry V (Olivier, 1944)

It’s only right to include at least one of Laurence Olivier’s Shakespeare adaptation on a list of classic British films. While some might opt for 1948’s Oscar-winning Hamlet or 1955’s Richard III, I’ll take Sir Larry’s directorial debut, which is also a dramatization of my favorite Shakespeare play. Olivier’s innovative version of Henry V is gorgeously photographed in three-strip Technicolor and ingeniously begins as a documentary-style film of an authentic Globe Theatre production, complete with visible and audible audience reactions, before “opening up” into an intensely cinematic adaptation with epic battle scenes involving real locations and hundreds of extras on horseback. That this was also an attempt to boost British wartime morale, most obvious in Henry’s “Once more unto the breach” and “St. Crispin’s Day” monologues, makes the film even more poignant in hindsight.

Brief Encounter (Lean, 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.

Dead of Night (Cavalcanti/Crichton/Dearden/Hamer, 1945)

“Omnibus” movies, feature-length anthologies of short films created by multiple writers/directors, invariably feel inconsistent and uneven. The Ealing Studios horror anthology Dead of Night is one of the best exceptions to the rule. A linking narrative shows an architect arriving at a party at a country home where he is overcome with a sense of deja vu. Once there, he is regaled with stories told by various guests that serve as the basis for the film’s four tales: Christmas Party and The Ventriloquist’s Dummy by Alberto Cavalcanti, Golfing Story by Charles Crichton, Hearse Driver by Basil Dearden and The Haunted Mirror by Robert Hamer. The stories balance each other out beautifully, from the darkly humorous to the genuinely scary, and are wonderfully tied together in the end. Michael Redgrave’s performance as the ventriloquist is a creepy high point. Fans of horror and/or British cinema can’t afford to miss this.

Brighton Rock (Boulting, 1947)

John Boulting’s adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel centers on Pinkie, a young, low level gangster who commits a hit at the beginning of the film and then romances Rose, the working class waitress who is the only witness to the crime. He agrees to marry her in order to keep her quiet, while she thinks she can change him for the better. Future director Richard Attenborough is electrifying as Pinkie, especially as the character’s behavior becomes increasingly pathological while trying to keep the police at bay. There are also great noir-ish visuals, authentically seedy locations and one of the most cruelly ironic endings in cinema. This is quite simply the best of the British gangster movies.

The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, 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.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer, 1949)

When Louis Mazzini discovers he is a distant, bastard heir of the “Duke of D’Ascoyne” he decides to murder the eight relatives who stand between him and the title. Alec Guinness is delightful playing eight(!) different roles in the extended D’Ascoyne family, including one female part, but it is Dennis Price as Mazzini who steals the show. His droll voice over narration, containing some of the wittiest English language dialogue ever written, provides the dark heart of this blackest of Ealing comedies.

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 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 recently 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.

The Lavender Hill Mob (Charles Crichton, 1951)

Another Ealing Studios comedy gem starring Alec Guinness, this time as a mild-mannered bank clerk who masterminds a scheme to steal gold bullion from his employers, melt it down and smuggle it out of the country as souvenir toy models of the Eiffel Tower. Charles Crichton, best known for directing A Fish Called Wanda thirty seven years later, keeps the tone light and clever and the pacing swift during the lean 81 minute running time. The film does however achieve a certain gravitas due to the genuinely poignant friendship that develops between Guinness’ bank clerk and the small-time artist played by Stanley Holloway who agrees to help him.

The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955)

If you only see one Ealing comedy, this should be it. Alec Guinness (again!) gives arguably his finest comic performance as the leader of a gang of inept robbers who pose as classical musicians and rent a room from an elderly widow in order to plot their latest heist. Unfortunately for the crooks, but fortunately for film lovers, nothing goes according to plan in Alexander Mackendrick’s masterful blend of verbal wit and hilarious sight gags. Bolstered by a terrific cast (including early performances by Herbert Lom and Peter Sellers) and beautiful Technicolor cinematography, this is a near-perfect comedy.

Dracula (AKA Horror of Dracula) (Terence Fisher, 1958)

Another prerequisite for any list of essential British movies is the inclusion of something from the cycle of classic Hammer horror films from the mid to late 1950s. Many of these titles were reworkings of the Universal Studios monster movies of the 1930s but updated to include gorier effects and color cinematography. My personal favorite is Terence Fisher’s Dracula, which features the unbeatable team of Peter Cushing as Van Helsing and Christopher Lee as the title bloodsucker. Like Murnau with Nosferatu, Fisher knew that less was more when it came to horror; Lee’s screen time is extremely brief, which gives his Count Dracula that much more impact.

Room at the Top (Jack Clayton, 1959)

This is one of those films in which one can arguably feel the end of one era and the beginning of another. Laurence Harvey is Joe, an angry young man from a working class background who opportunistically conspires to marry the daughter of his wealthy factory owner boss. His plan is complicated when he falls in love with Alice (Simone Signoret), an older Frenchwoman who is unhappily married. Joe’s attempts to carry on both affairs simultaneously inevitably ends in tragedy. The dialogue and performances here are more naturalistic than what came before in British movies, including a much more frank attitude toward sexuality. Harvey is terrific as the social climber but it is the magnificent, Oscar-winning performance by Signoret as the sad-eyed older woman that broke my bloody heart.

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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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