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Tag Archives: Jean Renoir

The Poetic Realism of Jean Renoir

Today marks the 72nd anniversary of the world premiere of Jean Renoir’s The Rules of the Game in Paris. It is the movie I show most frequently in Intro to Film classes to illustrate the slippery yet vital French movement known as Poetic Realism.

Jean Renoir is the most famous and critically renowned of all the great French directors who have been lumped together under the difficult-to-define umbrella term of “Poetic Realism.” In contrast to silent French film movements like Impressionism and Surrealism (both of which can be considered avant-garde or non-narrative), Poetic Realism, which flowered in the early sound era, integrated poetic, non-narrative innovations into the conventions of narrative continuity filmmaking. The end result was a cycle of films that took some of the aesthetic concerns of those earlier movements and wedded them to traditional movie realism in a way that exhibits a socially conscious perspective while simultaneously remaining accessible to mainstream audiences. The Rules of the Game, released in 1939, is the most famous of all Poetic Realist films and is widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made. It also represented the end of the first phase of Jean Renoir’s career. It was banned by the French government shortly after its initial release (a ban maintained by the Nazis when their occupation of France began), causing Renoir to flee to America where he worked for the better part of a decade. Upon returning to Europe in the early fifties he would be a very different type of director and would make very different (though in many ways equally wonderful) types of films.

The Rules of the Game tells the story of a group of aristocrats and their servants who have gathered for a holiday weekend in the country at a mansion belonging to Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest (Marcel Dalio). This makes Renoir’s film the spiritual godfather of a certain strain of European art film of the 1960s, one that Pauline Kael derisively dubbed the “come dressed as the sick soul of Europe party,” a category including films as diverse as L’avventura, Last Year at Marienbad and La Dolce Vita. Like those later modernist films, The Rules of the Game has widely been interpreted as an attack on the bourgeoisie (one of the reasons it was banned to begin with), but it is truer to say that no one is spared in Renoir’s social critique; the working class characters are just as flawed as the masters they serve and in some cases more so (witness the scene where the servants gossip about Robert’s Jewish ancestry). It is also worth noting that Renoir extends sympathy to all of his characters as well. He refuses to valorize or demonize any of them; instead, he shows them in their full humanity and that, I suspect, is what some find unbearable.

These are the ways in which The Rules of the Game can be said to exemplify Poetic Realism:

– The blending of comedy and tragedy

At times the film’s comedy is surprisingly physical and slapstick in nature but it can also turn on a dime, unexpectedly shifting to tragedy and becoming deadly serious in tone. If we are to take Charlie Chaplin’s formulation that “comedy is life in long shot” at face value, it is worth noting that all of the violence in The Rules of the Game plays out in long shot, which indeed makes it seem farcical in nature. This is especially true of the scenes where Schumacher the cuckolded husband (Gaston Modot) is chasing Marceau the poacher (Julien Carette) throughout the mansion. But when Marceau accidentally shoots and kills Andre the aviator (Roland Toutain) in the film’s penultimate scene (mistakenly believing him to be yet another character!), Renoir pulls the rug out from under us; there is nothing funny about the real death resulting from Schumacher’s fickle behavior.

– The use of cinematic techniques to provide social commentary not always readily apparent in the dialogue

These are the poetic innovations to which I alluded in the opening paragraph. To give one prominent example, the most famous scene in the movie is a hunting expedition involving all of the principle characters. In this remarkable sequence, Renoir shows a fast-paced montage of birds and rabbits being killed in rapid succession and the dynamic cutting (presented in stark contrast to the way every other scene in the film is edited) suggests that Renoir is trying to draw a parallel between the slaughter of the animals and the behavior of the human characters towards one another. After the outbreak of World War II, this would make Renoir’s movie look positively prophetic. Although the upper class characters in the film are not bloodthirsty, their hypocrisy is just a hop, skip and a jump away from the Nazi appeasement with which their real life counterparts would soon engage.

– The employment of long takes and long shots

The great French critic Andre Bazin was an early proponent of Jean Renoir; he championed the long take/long shot style evidenced by Renoir’s films of the 1930s, which he referred to as mise-en-scene aesthetics and which he explicitly contrasted with the rapid editing of Sergei Eisenstein and the directors of the Soviet Montage school. Bazin saw montage editing as being more conducive to propaganda filmmaking and long shots and long takes as giving viewers more freedom to pick and choose what they wanted to see within the frame. (Orson Welles and Gregg Toland would take this principle to an extreme with the deep-focus cinematography of Citizen Kane two years later.) An excellent example of a scene unfolding in both long shot and long take is when Robert and Andre are walking down a hallway in the foreground and talking about their “good friend” Octave (Renoir himself) who, unbeknownst to both men, is creeping around in the middle-ground behind them, preparing to steal away with Christine (the woman that all three men love). Finally, in the extreme background a servant snuffs out a candle at the end of the hallway as if to accentuate the point that Octave is not who Robert and Andre think he is. In a long shot like this, viewers are free to choose the characters on whom they’d like to focus – and thus “edit” the film for themselves.

Like Grand Illusion, Renoir’s other Poetic Realist masterpiece, the title of The Rules of the Game is simultaneously simple, evocative and ambiguous. I have personally always felt that it referred to the “rules” by which one must abide in order to survive in a ruthless world like the one depicted in the movie. Naturally, this involves lying, which nearly all of the film’s characters do. For instance, Christine (Nora Gregor), Robert’s wife, pretends to have known all along that her husband was cheating on her with Genevieve (Mila Parély) after spying them together during the hunt. This lie causes Genevieve to remain at the house for the weekend so that the facade of civility can perpetuate. But there is one character in the film who is incapable of lying; Andre makes a historic flight but is unable to conceal his disappointment on a live radio interview that Christine failed to greet him when his plane landed. Later, Andre seals his doom when he insists on telling Robert that he and Christine plan on running away together. Had they left in secret like Christine wanted, Andre never would have gotten killed. Renoir knew that to refuse to play by the rules of a strict social code was to risk being slaughtered like an animal in the hunt. That he could dramatize this not only without a trace of cynicism but also in a spirit of great generosity was one of the secrets of his genius.

The Rules of the Game was released in a splendid DVD edition by the Criterion Collection in 2004. A forthcoming Blu-ray by the same company has been rumored since last year.

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Sacre Blu!

French behemoth Gaumont, a studio that has been around since the dawn of motion pictures and produced some of the greatest movies of all time, has recently begun releasing high-quality Blu-ray discs of their catalogue titles and aiming them squarely at the international market. Their new Blu-ray releases of two masterworks of French cinema, Jean Renoir’s French Cancan from 1954 and Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped from 1956, come with optional English subtitles and are “region-free” discs to boot. This means that you don’t need an obscure multi-region player like mine to enjoy them. (That’s right, American kids can now enjoy Bresson in high-definition on their Playstations!) For cinephiles everywhere, especially Francophile cinephiles like yours truly, this is cause for celebration.

French Cancan original poster art:

As someone who first saw French Cancan in the 1990s on a videotape from the old Interama VHS label, featuring an approximation of the film’s original color scheme that could be charitably described as “badly faded,” Gaumont’s new release comes as a major revelation. Their Blu-ray is based on a 2010 restoration of the original 3-strip Technicolor elements that causes the film’s vivid color cinematography, one of its most crucial aspects, to “pop” in a way that it never has before on home video. Putting to shame even the DVD version released by the normally reliable Criterion Collection from a few years back, I can honestly say I feel as though watching Gaumont’s Blu-ray of French Cancan was the first time I’ve ever truly seen the movie.

As its title implies, French Cancan is one of the most quintessentially French movies ever made. Directed by one of the giants of French cinema (himself the son of one of the giants of French Impressionist painting), the film tells the story of the founding of the legendary Moulin Rouge nightclub in the late 19th century and the concurrent revitalization of the can-can dance craze. Furthermore, Jean Gabin, arguably the most iconic of French actors, gives one of his most charismatic performances as Moulin Rouge founder Henri Danglard, and legendary songstress Edith Piaf even pops up in a cameo. Rounding out the cast are Maria Felix as Lola, Danglard’s belly-dancing mistress, with whom he eventually loses interest in favor of Nina, an ingenue played by the delightful Françoise Arnoul. It is ironic that the most memorable aspect of this French extravaganza might just be the ravishing Felix, an icon of the golden age of Mexican cinema, whose unforgettably hot-blooded star persona combined the fierce independence of a Joan Crawford with the full-bodied sensuality of an Ava Gardner.

Renoir was of course a great visual stylist. Central to appreciating the nostalgic, magisterial portrait of fin-de-siecle Paris he paints in French Cancan is recognizing his recreation of the feel of post-Impressionist painting. Because 3-strip Technicolor featured a more vibrant and “unrealistic” color palette than other color processes and because it featured a greater separation between colors, Technicolor was especially conducive to capturing the look of the broad planes of bright, primary colors seen in the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec. It is this aspect of French Cancan that positively dazzles on Blu-ray; the film’s famous can-can climax, an ecstatic, near-orgiastic riot of form and color that seems to go on forever, resembles nothing so much as a series of Toulouse-Lautrec paintings that have come thrillingly alive.

Marcelle Lender on Stage by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec:

Robert Bresson also knew a thing or two about painting, having worked in that medium before turning his attention to filmmaking in the 1930s. Tantalizingly little is known about this early part of Bresson’s life (intriguingly, he claimed he gave up painting because it made him “nervous”). But if his movies are anything to go by, Bresson probably worked in the minimalist style of 17th century religious painter Georges de la Tour. The flatness and the “nocturnal light” of la Tour’s work, itself influenced by Caravaggio and the Dutch masters, appear to be a visual reference point for the similar qualities that can be found in Bresson’s work of the 1950s.

Gaumont originally signed on to produce A Man Escaped in the wake of the success of Bresson’s previous film, The Diary of a Country Priest in 1951. Based on the memoir of French Resistance member Andre Devigny, A Man Escaped tells the story of Fontaine, a Lieutenant in the French Army who escapes from a Nazi prison after being condemned to death for blowing up a bridge. All of the hallmarks of Bresson’s mature style, which can be seen in embryonic form in Country Priest, are fully realized for the first time in A Man Escaped; these include the use of non-professional actors who have been rigorously trained to recite their lines in flat, neutral tones, a frequent use of close-ups that fragment the human body, and a prominent use of voice-over narration and off-screen sounds. In A Man Escaped, all of these elements combine to create one of the most formally perfect and spiritually uplifting works of art that I know of.

Bresson’s use of sound especially is so creative that it is worth discussing in detail. A Man Escaped contains a fascinating interplay between sounds that are diegetic (coming from within the world of the movie) and non-diegetic (coming from without). Lieutenant Fontaine’s nonsimultaneous diegetic voice-over is crucial in drawing us into the character’s inner world. The past tense character of the narration, along with the film’s title, are also key in making the outcome of the story seem preordained. We know from the get-go that Fontaine will escape; Bresson, an intensely process-oriented director, shifts the suspense away from “what will happen” and onto “how it will happen.”

The Penitent Magdalen by Georges de la Tour:

One of Bresson’s maxims was to “replace an image with a sound whenever possible.” This strategy can be seen many times throughout A Man Escaped and is employed for different reasons. At the film’s beginning, we see a Nazi prison guard dragging his keys along the railing of a stairway. We never see the image again but Bresson has already established a shortcut method of communicating to the audience by allowing us to merely hear the sound throughout the rest of the movie when he wants to indicate the guard is near. Conversely, at the end of the film, Bresson builds suspense by allowing us to hear a squeaking noise several minutes before revealing its origin: another guard riding a bicycle in circles around the prison’s outer walls.

The use of non-diegetic music (i.e., that which cannot be heard by the film’s characters) is also fascinating in A Man Escaped. Bresson repeatedly uses Mozart’s Mass in C Minor to score the action onscreen, although he uses this music in a drastically different way than the typical film director. Bresson never uses music to manipulate the viewer emotionally but for rhythmic and thematic purposes instead; Mass in C Minor, for instance, is played every time Fontaine makes contact with a fellow prisoner for the first time or learns a new piece of information that will help him escape. The viewer therefore becomes aware, even if only on a subconscious level, that all of these scenes are somehow linked thematically. After repeated viewings, it is easy to see that Bresson is underlining how important it is for Fontaine to trust his fellow prisoners in order for his plan of escape to work.

Unlike their release of French Cancan, Gaumont’s Blu-ray of A Man Escaped is not based on newly restored film elements. Consequently, it does not provide as dramatic of an upgrade in terms of sound and image quality over previous DVDs. However, it is definitely still an upgrade, with a wonderful transfer providing much more film-like characteristics such as increased depth and grain. I consider both of these discs essential and am very pleased to have them in my library. I am also intensely curious to see what else Gaumont may have in the pipeline; I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a Louis Feuillade box set.

A Man Escaped original poster art:


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.


Top 25 Films of the 1930s

25. Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein, Russia, 1938)

24. The Lady Vanishes (Hitchcock, UK, 1938)

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 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.

23. Freaks (Browning, USA, 1932)

22. The Only Son (Ozu, Japan, 1936)

My favorite pre-war Yasujiro Ozu film is also his first sound movie, an exceedingly poignant story of the relationship between a single mother who slaves away in a silk factory to give her son the best possible education only to be disappointed when he doesn’t grow up to fulfill her lofty expectations. Exquisite direction, including a signature use of cutaways to seemingly random exteriors, nuanced performances and a simple, unsentimental plot combine for a unique and deeply moving experience.

21. Outskirts (Barnet, Russia, 1933)

Although active as a director until his death by suicide in 1965, Boris Barnet is probably best known for his silent film work (e.g., The Girl with the Hatbox and Miss Mend). Outskirts (AKA The Patriots) was Barnet’s first sound movie and remains an unjustly underseen masterpiece of its era. The film is a comedy/drama about the residents of an unnamed town in rural Russia in the days leading up to World War I. It starts off as a comedy that boasts a delightful and innovative use of sound (where animals and even inanimate objects are given voice) but becomes increasingly serious after the war breaks out. Most surprising of all is the tender love subplot that develops between a Russian peasant girl and a German POW. Hopefully, Outskirts will someday receive the loving home video release it deserves and become much better known among cinephiles.

20. Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, USA, 1939)

19. Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, Japan, 1934)

The one and only film I’ve been able to track down by the esteemed Yasujiro Shimazu is this delightful comedy/drama about the friendship between two neighboring families set in contemporary suburban Japan. The plot concerns a love triangle between a law student who “looks like Frederic March” and the two sisters next door, one of whom is newly separated from her husband. In a lot of ways, this feels like the most modern (and westernized) Japanese movie of its era – the characters play baseball, watch a Betty Boop cartoon and engage in hilarious, flirtatious banter. The exchanges between the law student and the younger sister in particular (the Miss Yae of the title) are highly memorable and infectiously fun.

18. People on Sunday (Siodmak/Ulmer, Germany, 1930)

A remarkable documentary-like narrative film about a weekend in the life of ordinary Berliners, People on Sunday centers on five characters who are portrayed by non-actors with day-jobs similar to those of their counterparts in the story. The film is also fascinating in that it was made by a collective of young amateur filmmakers, all of whom would soon go on to notable careers in Hollywood: it was directed by brothers Curt and Robert Siodmak, Edgar Ulmer and Fred Zinnemann based on a script by Billy Wilder.

17. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Germany, 1930)

The Blue Angel is notable for many reasons, including its status as the first German talkie and the film that launched Marlene Dietrich to international stardom. The story is reminiscent of Variety with Emil Jannings again playing a man who is driven to ruin by a treacherous woman, this time a cabaret singer of loose morals named Lola Lola (Dietrich at her most iconic). This was the only German-made film by Austrian director Josef von Sternberg.

16. Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, Japan, 1936)

Like Yasujiro Ozu, Hiroshi Shimizu was one of the top directors at Shochiku Studios in the 1930s – although his work was virtually unknown in the West until the 21st century. Mr. Thank You is an astonishing film about a bus driver known for his politeness who travels from town to town through rural Japan. It takes place virtually in real time and was shot on a real bus traveling through the countryside (no rear projection was used), which makes it an important stylistic precursor to both Italian Neorealism and the road movies of Abbas Kiarostami. Shimizu’s film is both universal (a bus journey as a metaphor for life – a series of sad, funny, ephemeral encounters between fellow travelers) and specifically rooted in Depression-era Japan (a woman sells her daughter into prostitution, a Korean laborer helps to build a road that she herself cannot afford to travel on by bus).

15. Vampyr (Dreyer, Germany, 1932)

14. L’age d’Or (Bunuel, France, 1930)

Luis Bunuel’s first feature-length film is also his first masterpiece, a hilarious Surrealist account of a man and a woman who repeatedly attempt to get together and have sex but are continually prevented from doing so by members of respectable bourgeois society. This is full of famous Surrealist images, which still retain their awesome, funny, unsettling power today: a woman shoos a full grown cow off of the bed in her upper-class home, a groundskeeper arbitrarily shoots his son, a woman lasciviously sucks on the toe of a statue, a man throws various objects, including a burning tree, a bishop and a giraffe, out of a second story window. Like a lot of great works of Surrealist art, this was deliberately meant to counter the rising tide of fascism that was sweeping across Europe at the time.

13. The Goddess (Wu, China, 1934)

12. Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (Hawks, USA, 1932)

11. Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, USA, 1932)

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.

10. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, USA, 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.

9. The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937)

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8. City Lights (Chaplin, USA, 1931)

Charlie Chaplin had more success than any of the silent clowns in transitioning to the sound era – in part because he delayed doing so for as long as possible. City Lights was his last true silent and the penultimate outing of his beloved “Little Tramp” character. Here, the Tramp falls in love with a poor, blind flower girl who mistakenly believes him to be a rich man. Alternately funny and poignant in the best Chaplin tradition, this film also provides the best example of Chaplin’s still relatively unheralded genius as filmmaker: the only close-ups that occur in the entire film are in the final moments, which make them all the more impacting.

7. Earth (Dovzhenko, Ukraine, 1930)

My favorite Soviet film of the silent era is Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth, whose slender narrative about the virtues of collective farming in the Ukraine is merely an excuse for the director to present a succession of rapturously beautiful painterly images: wheat fields waving in the wind, rain falling on fruit, a young woman standing next to a giant sunflower and a series of unforgettable faces that resemble paintings of religious icons. Dovzhenko got his start as a painter and cartoonist and his purely visual approach to storytelling would serve as a model for future Soviet directing greats Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov.

6. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1939)

The first major masterpiece of Kenji Mizoguchi’s career is this towering period drama about the taboo relationship between a wealthy young actor and his family’s wet nurse. The formal precision of Mizoguchi’s exquisitely calibrated camera movements, combined with his signature use of long takes and long shots (there are literally no close-ups in the movie), is perfectly suited to his twin themes of doomed love and female sacrifice. This may have been a routine melodrama in the hands of any other director but Mizoguchi, the consummate perfectionist, knew that his rigorous visual style would touch and elevate the viewer. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums ranks alongside of Mizoguchi’s best post-war films (The Life of Oharu, Ugetsu and Sansho the Bailiff) as one of the greatest achievements in cinema.

5. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, Japan, 1937)

Sadao Yamanaka is considered a major figure in Japanese movies of the early sound era. He died tragically before reaching his thirtieth birthday and only three of the twenty-plus films he directed in his brief, prolific career survive today. This is cause for bitter regret because Humanity and Paper Balloons is probably my favorite Japanese movie of the entire pre-war era, a film I would rank ahead of the greatest early work of the more well-known directors on this list. Set in the Tokugawa era, this story of a kidnap and ransom plot across class lines is a jidai-geki (period piece) that feels like a gendai-geki (contemporary story). Indeed, it’s fascinating to see such an unromanticized view of the samurai class, which went against cinematic trends of the pre-war years. This flawlessly directed portrait of 18th century village life is alternately tragic and funny and brimming with unforgettable characters.

4. M (Lang, Germany, 1931)

My favorite German movie of all time is this police procedural/serial killer thriller based on the exploits of several real-life German murderers of the 1920s. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film and his innovative use of dialogue, sound effects and music (the killer’s habitual whistling) was hugely influential on subsequent movies. This was also the screen debut of theatrical actor Peter Lorre, chilling and believable as the killer, who would soon follow his director in carving out a memorable Hollywood career.

3. L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934)

L’atalante tells the story of a newly married couple, a barge captain and his provincial wife, and their tumultuous honeymoon-cum-cargo trip along the Seine river. The simple boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl/boy-finds-girl plot is merely an excuse for director Jean Vigo and ace cinematographer Boris Kaufman to serve up an array of rapturously photographed images, all of which correspond to the emotions of his protagonists. In a legendary supporting role, Michel Simon’s portrayal of a tattooed, cat-loving first mate is as endearing as it is hilarious. One of cinema’s transcendental glories – endlessly rewatchable, always uplifting.

2. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939)

This is Jean Renoir’s masterpiece and the grandaddy of all films about an assortment of friends and lovers getting together for a weekend-long party in the country. The “rules of the game” are the rules one must abide by in order to get along in society, which involves a considerable amount of dishonesty. Fittingly, the one character who is incapable of lying, the earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve aviator Andre, is also the character who dies “like an animal in the hunt.” Like the best works of Shakespeare or Chekhov, this humanist tragicomedy captures timeless truths about the inner workings of the human heart.

1. City Girl (Murnau, USA, 1930)

F.W. Murnau’s final Hollywood movie was lost until the early 1970s, then seriously critically reappraised when excellent quality DVD and blu-ray versions appeared in the 21st century. The film charts the relationship between a young wheat farmer (Charles Farrell) and his city girl bride (Mary Duncan) through blissful courtship, disillusion with meddling in-laws and the austerity of farm life and, ultimately, hard-won and believable reconciliation. As with all of Murnau’s best work, documentary realism is combined with breathtaking and poetic flights of fancy: Farrell and Duncan’s “run through the wheat” is probably my favorite 30 seconds in any movie ever.


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