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Tag Archives: Luchino Visconti

A Very Curious Sentence in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard

leopard

So I recently finished reading The Leopard (or Il Gattpardo as it’s known in Italian), the great but sadly one-and-only novel written by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. The book was originally published in 1958, exactly one year after the author’s death, and it is well-known today primarily for serving as the basis for Luchino Visconti’s opulent, Burt Lancaster-starring film version from 1963. To anyone with an interest in the movie — and you should be interested in it (although if you’ve not yet seen it you may want to bone up on reading about Garibaldi, the Risorgimento and 19th century Italian history in general over at Wikipedia first) — I would also recommend checking out the source novel: it will help you to understand the soul of the Sicilian people. Catholic hypocrisy, class differences, aging machismo, an elegy for the dying aristocracy, etc. All of that and more comes to life in Lampedusa’s beautiful and vivid prose.

I must admit, however, that one very curious sentence in the book caught me completely off-guard — a startling cinematic reference that the author casually drops into the middle of a scene taking place in 1860 when most of the novel’s action is set. Lampedusa describes the elation of Angelica (the character played by Claudia Cardinale in the movie) upon being asked to marry Tancredi (the character played by Alain Delon) by his uncle, the Prince of Salina (Lancaster’s character):

After this Angelica blushed, took half a step back: ‘I’m so happy . . .,’ then came close again, stood on tiptoe, and murmured into his ear, ‘Uncle mine!’; a highly successful line, comparable in its perfect timing almost to Eisenstein’s baby carriage, and which, explicit and secret as it was, set the Prince’s simple heart aflutter and yoked him to the lovely girl forever.

While one might expect this kind of surprising anachronistic metaphor from, say, Thomas Pynchon (who deliberately and hilariously peppers his “period” novels with this sort of thing), it is the only such 20th century reference that I’m aware of in Lampedusa’s entire novel — at least until the brief epilogue, which flashes-forward to 1910 (and that’s still 15 years before Eisenstein’s movie was made). As incongruous as it may seem, however, I think Lampedusa does have a point: Sergei Eisenstein’s baby carriage shots are perfectly placed within the Odessa steps massacre montage towards the end of Battleship Potemkin. One might even say that they serve as the climax of the film’s climax. The great Russian director, who edited his movies with almost mathematical precision, certainly knew a thing or two about timing — as did Lampedusa and, for that matter, Visconti.

potemkin

Both Battleship Potemkin and The Leopard are available in high-quality restored editions on Blu-ray and DVD, the former via Kino and the latter via Criterion (the Blu-ray of which is the greatest shit evah). My copy of The Leopard, the novel, was published by Pantheon Books in 2007 and translated by one Archibald Colquhoun.

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An Italian Cinema Primer: From Neo – to Psychological Realism, pt. 2

A continuation of the list of essential Italian movie titles spanning the movements of Neo – and Psychological Realism that I began last week. This part of the list encompasses films released from 1960 – 1969.

L’avventura (Antonioni, 1960)

A woman, Anna, mysteriously disappears while on a yachting trip with friends. The missing woman’s lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), spend the remainder of the movie looking for her but their search merely becomes the pretext for a love affair as they promptly proceed to forget about her. L’avventura‘s slow pace and lack of narrative resolution have driven many viewers up the wall (including me the first time I saw it) but Michelangelo Antonioni’s stately compositions and underlying philosophical themes have a power as awesome and mysterious as the ocean he so lovingly photographs in the film’s majestic first third. L’avventura‘s 1960 Cannes premiere was one of cinema’s game-changing moments.

La Dolce Vita (Fellini, 1960)

Although he had made several formidable movies in the decade preceding it, La Dolce Vita marked the true beginning of Federico Fellini’s art as it would come to be known, loved and imitated: a stylistically baroque, excessive, grotesque depiction of life-as-a-carnival in which the director seemed to hurl at the screen all of his ideas about life, love and art with little regard for self-censorship. Marcello Mastroianni has movie star charisma to burn as a hedonistic yellow journalist struggling to come to grips with the modern world, the first of many times he would play the role of Fellini’s idealized alter ego.

Accattone (Pasolini, 1961)

The amazing first film of Pier Paolo Pasolini, loosely adapted from his own acclaimed novel A Violent Life. Pasolini follows the title character, a pimp played by the remarkable non-actor Franco Citti, through the slums of Rome in a style that could be said to harken back to Neorealism if not for the inclusion of a bold dream sequence and the director’s insistence on viewing Accatone as a saint (most obviously through the repeated use of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion chorus on the soundtrack). One of the all-time great directorial debuts.

8 1/2 (Fellini, 1963)

Life imitates art and art imitates life in Fellini’s masterpiece, a thinly-disguised autobiographical study of a movie director (Mastroianni again) fighting “director’s block.” Guido Anselmi struggles to complete his latest film, a science fiction epic, as fantasies, dreams and childhood memories collide (most of which pertain to Guido’s struggles with religion and/or women). Fellini never again recaptured the greatness on display here (even though he repeatedly mined similar subject matter) but as far as career peaks go, 8 1/2, quite simply one of the most influential movies ever, remains a dizzying high.

Black Sabbath (Bava, 1963)

Yes, the band got their name from here. Mario Bava’s superb anthology film tells three unrelated spine-tingling tales of terror (a literal translation of the original Italian title is “Evil Has Three Faces”). In the first, an early giallo, a woman alone in her apartment receives threatening phone calls from a mysterious stranger. In the second, an elderly vampire attempts to “turn” his entire family. In the third, a nurse is haunted by the image of a dead woman after stealing her ring. Serving as master of ceremonies is none other than Boris Karloff who also plays the vampire, with great poignance, in the second story. What really impresses here is Bava’s visual storytelling: he conveys an atmosphere of dread through a bold and eerie use of color (dig the purple), camera movement and composition. One of the great horror movies.

The Leopard (Visconti, 1963)

Few directors have been as adept at capturing physical beauty as Luchino Visconti and The Leopard is his most beautiful and perfectly realized film. Adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s equally great novel, Visconti’s movie tells the story of Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (a fittingly regal and masculine Burt Lancaster) who maneuvers through the political tumult of 1860s Sicily, which includes marrying his revolutionary-minded nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) to the beautiful, newly upper-class Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). The Leopard‘s climactic ball scene, a virtually non-narrative 40 minute visual feast, is one of the glories of the film medium. The Criterion Collection’s blu-ray release of this title single-handedly justifies the purchase of a blu-ray player.

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini, 1964)

Pasolini’s best-loved film is this unorthodox but reverential version of the Christ story in which the life of Jesus (hauntingly portrayed by non-actor Enrique Irazoqui) is told in straightforward, realistic fashion – from his birth in Bethlehem to his revolutionary political teachings to his crucifixion, death and resurrection at Golgotha. Some critics have detected a Marxist slant to Pasolini’s take yet this is a movie virtually anyone, even the Pope, could love. The impressively eclectic soundtrack features Bach, Mahalia Jackson and Blind Willie Johnson.

Red Desert (Antonioni, 1964)

Michelangelo Antonioni’s first color film features one of the most expressive and purposeful employments of color cinematography in the history of cinema, where the director notoriously spray painted entire fields in order to achieve the appropriate psychological mood. Red Desert begins shortly after Giuliana (Monica Vitti in her prime), the wife of a wealthy industrialist has suffered some kind of unspecified mental breakdown. Seemingly unable to adapt to the modern world, the distressed woman is taken advantage of by Zeller (a dubbed but very fine Richard Harris), a business associate of her husband. Arguably the apotheosis of Antonioni’s career (at least as a work of pure visual storytelling), this is the last Italian movie he would make for many years.

Fists in the Pocket (Bellocchio, 1965)

If L’avventura lamented the displacement of traditional social institutions (marriage, church, family, etc.) by eros in the modern world, Fists in the Pocket goes a step further and allegorizes post-War Italy as a murderous, incestuous family presided over by a blind, religious mother. Lou Castel, a Colombian actor best known for his work in Italian and French movies, burns up the screen as Alessandro, a mentally disturbed young man who is driven by ostensibly altruistic reasons to murder his family members one by one. A harrowing debut film by the prodigiously talented writer/director Maro Bellocchio.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, 1966)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the definitive “spaghetti western,” a popular subgenre of American-set westerns made in Europe, usually Spain, by a typically Italian cast and crew. This is the third installment of a trilogy (preceded by A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More, both of which also starred Clint Eastwood) but this Hollywood co-production works perfectly as a stand-alone film. The plot concerns the misadventures of the title trio, all of whom are in search of $200,000 in buried gold, set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Director Sergio Leone’s “operatic” visual style combines with Ennio Morricone’s legendarily innovative score to lend The Good, the Bad and the Ugly a singular tone that is at once comical, cartoonish and, in Dave Kehr’s astute phrase, “inexplicably moving.”

Dillinger is Dead (Ferreri, 1969)

Marco Ferreri’s bat-shit crazy black comedy is very much a product of the “anything goes” 1960s: it captures one long night in the life of a bored bourgeoisie (the always terrific Michel Piccoli in what is nearly a one-man show) as he engages in gourmet cooking, infidelity and murder. Along the way, he paints a pistol red with white polka dots, listens to some groovy music and projects and interacts with home movies on his living room wall. I respect this experimental film more than I love it but, as an example of cinema at the end of its tether, I can’t think of a better way to put an end to this particular list of movies.


An Italian Cinema Primer: From Neo – to Psychological Realism, pt. 1

The most well-known period in the history of Italian cinema remains the era of “Italian Neorealism,” the legendarily socially conscious movement comprised of documentary-style films made during the years of the Second World War and its immediate aftermath. But I think the best way to understand Italian cinema is to look at how the conventions of Neorealism gradually morphed into something quite different (and arguably even polar opposite) by the end of the 1960s – mostly at the hands of the very same filmmakers (Luchino Visconti, Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, et al) who had been responsible for setting the world on fire by helping to create that earlier revolutionary movement. Antonioni purportedly once claimed that “the bicycle is no longer enough,” referring to the fact that a film character’s psychological problems should no longer be seen as stemming only from external factors. There is no more succinct description of the transition that occurred between the socially-rooted dilemmas of the characters in Neorealism and the more extravagant psychological flights of fancy found in Fellini or in the existential angst of the characters in Antonioni. It is also significant that the characters of Neorealism tended to be working class while the characters of the Psychological Realism of the ’60s tended to be affluent. Between these two seemingly opposite poles of Italian cinema can be found nothing less than the whole wide world.

The list is presented in chronological order and will be split across two posts. The first part below encompasses the years 1943 – 1959:

Ossessione (Visconti, 1943)

Luchino Visocnti’s unofficial adaptation of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is often cited as the birth of Italian Neorealism due to its working class milieu and use of documentary-style location shooting. However, Visconti’s employment of Cain’s Hollywood-style plot (a woman who runs an inn seduces an unemployed drifter into murdering her much older and less attractive husband) and the use of glamorous stars in the lead roles (Clara Calamai and Massimo Girotti) better positions this as an early forerunner of the movement.

Rome, Open City (Rossellini, 1945)

Roberto Rossellini is, in my opinion, the greatest of all Italian directors and this low-budget but courageous dramatization of the Nazi occupation of Italy in the waning months of WWII, heroically made immediately after the period had ended, was where he first found himself. The climactic scenes depicting the torture of Resistance members by the forces of Fascism remind us of what true courage is, much more so than what has ever been achieved by the feel-goodism of Hollywood-style recreations. Anna Magnani’s performance is one of the miracles of cinema.

Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, 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.

Bitter Rice (De Santis, 1949)

A fascinating melodrama/film noir/Neorealist hybrid set among female rice workers in the Po valley. The voluptuous Silvana Mangano became an international star overnight for her portrayal of Silvana, a working girl tempted by the bounty of a thief on the run. A huge commercial success upon its release due to its unbridled depiction of earthy sexuality, Bitter Rice still packs a memorable erotic punch today.

Stromboli (Rossellini, 1950)

After helping to define Neorealism only a few years earlier, Roberto Rossellini abruptly turned his back on the movement with this astonishing Ingrid Bergman-starring melodrama, the first in a profitable cycle of such films. An Eastern European woman (Bergman) agrees to marry an Italian fisherman in order to escape a prison camp in the aftermath of WWII. But life in the fishing of village of Stromboli isn’t all that she hoped it would be, which leads to a startling existential crisis. A film of both incredible documentary value (the tuna fishing sequence!) and visceral erotic symbolism.

The Gold of Naples (De Sica, 1954)

Following the box office flop of the bleak Neorealist Umberto D in 1952, director Vittorio de Sica returned to directing the light comedy that characterized his early work. He also returned to his native Napoli for this delightful anthology of comic vignettes: a gangster forges an unlikely relationship with a clown, a down-on-his luck aristocrat gambles with a child, a prostitute gets married, an unfaithful woman searches for her missing wedding ring. The incredible use of Neapolitan locations and the high-powered cast of glamorous actors (Sophia Loren, Silvana Mangano, de Sica himeself) make this arguably the most Italian film on this list.

Senso (Visconti, 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.

Journey to Italy (AKA Journey to Italy) (Rossellini, 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.

Il Grido (Antonioni, 1957)

Il Grido is unusual for Michelangelo Antonioni in that it focuses on a working class character (the first and last time he would do so) but is typical of the director in almost every other respect: a near plotless series of events, the theme of the alienating effects of modernity, a generally bleak tone and a fine compositional eye for landscapes and architecture. The American actor Steve Cochran is very good as the mechanic who breaks up with his long-term girlfriend, then takes her daughter on the road where he drifts through a series of casual affairs. Fascinating in its own right but even more so seeing how it prefigures an epic stretch of greatness that would begin with Antonioni’s very next film, 1960’s Lavventura.

Nights of Cabiria (Fellini, 1957)

This is in my opinion the best of Fellini’s pre-Dolce Vita films, a relatively fleet and stylistically subdued valentine to the genius acting talent of his wife Giulietta Masina. Here she plays the title character, an eternally optimistic prostitute who works the streets of Rome while conscientiously saving money and dreaming of a better life. The picaresque narrative takes her through a series of adventures both humorous and heartbreaking, climaxing in an extraordinary final shot, a tribute to an indomitable spirit that will permanently burn itself into your brain.

To be continued . . .


Top 25 Films of the 1960s

25. L’amour Fou (Rivette, France, 1969)

A highpoint of both the French New Wave and the history of improvisational filmmaking, Jacques Rivette’s four hour plus opus charts the construction of a play (Racine’s Andromaque) as well as the disintegration of a marriage (that of the play’s director), alternating between 35mm and 16mm film stocks. As the film progresses and the cross-cutting slowly, inexorably achieves a terrifying velocity, L’amour Fou fully justifies Pauline Kael’s description as an “intellectual horror film.” The climactic orgy of sex and destruction has to be seen to be believed.

24. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960)

23. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson, France, 1966)

22. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, USA, 1968)

21. My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer, France, 1968)

mauds

20. The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, Germany, 1968)

19. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, 1962)

18. Boy (Oshima, Japan, 1969)

17. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Rossellini, France/Italy, 1966)

16. Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, France/Italy, 1961)

Alain Resnais followed up Hiroshima, Mon Amour by expanding on its innovative formal structure to create this audacious, intellectual “puzzle film.” A man and a woman (again unnamed) meet at the title resort where he attempts to convince her, against her protests, they had met and had an affair the previous year. As Marienbad progresses, we can never be sure if we are watching flashbacks, false memories or fantasies – or even which character might own them. Don’t let its reputation as a “cold,” “impenetrable” film deter you; there are many points of entry into this masterpiece, including the extraordinarily beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the sly humor of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s script and a great lead performance by the regal Delphine Seyrig.

15. A Fugitive from the Past (Uchida, Japan, 1965)

14. Army of Shadows (Melville, France, 1969)

13. The Arch (Tang, Hong Kong, 1969)

Cecille Tang’s masterpiece is often cited as Hong Kong’s first “art film” and indeed in terms of style this ascetic Ming dynasty period piece often feels like the Chinese equivalent of Andrei Rublev. Madame Tung (Lisa Lu) is a schoolteacher and widow asked by the government to provide room and board to cavalry Captain Yang (Roy Chiao) who arrives in her small farming village to protect the harvest from bandits. Both Madame Tung and her adolescent daughter develop feelings for the Captain during his stay in a quietly devastating romantic tragedy marked by minimalistic dialogue and haunting, austere black and white cinematography courtesy of Satyajit Ray’s regular director of photography Subrata Mitra.

12. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini, Italy, 1964)

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s best-loved film is this unorthodox but reverential version of the Christ story in which the life of Jesus (hauntingly portrayed by non-actor Enrique Irazoqui) is told in straightforward, realistic fashion – from his birth in Bethlehem to his revolutionary political teachings to his crucifixion, death and resurrection at Golgotha. Some critics have detected a Marxist slant to Pasolini’s take yet this is a movie virtually anyone, even the Pope, could love. The impressively eclectic soundtrack features Bach, Mahalia Jackson and Blind Willie Johnson.

11. 8 1/2 (Fellini, Italy, 1963)

Life imitates art and art imitates life in Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, a thinly-disguised autobiographical study of a movie director (Mastroianni again) fighting “director’s block.” Guido Anselmi struggles to complete his latest film, a science fiction epic, as fantasies, dreams and childhood memories collide (most of which pertain to Guido’s struggles with religion and/or women). Fellini never again recaptured the greatness on display here (even though he repeatedly mined similar subject matter) but as far as career peaks go, 8 1/2, quite simply one of the most influential movies ever, remains a dizzying high.

10. Charulata (Ray, India, 1964)

My favorite Satyajit Ray film is this 1964 masterpiece, the title of which is sometimes translated as The Lonely Wife. It tells the story of Charu, a housewife with an interest in literature, whose wealthy husband is preoccupied with his business of running an English language newspaper. The husband’s younger brother comes to visit and forms an instant intellectual bond with Charu that threatens to turn into something more serious. The psychology and emotions of the characters are vividly captured by both a flawless cast of performers as well as Ray’s atypically daring use of film form (i.e., camerawork, editing and even optical effects) that suggests the influence of the French New Wave; highlights include the impressionistic swing set scene and the unforgettable final freeze frame.

9. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Leone, Italy, 1966)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the definitive “spaghetti western,” a popular subgenre of American-set westerns made in Europe, usually Spain, by a typically Italian cast and crew. This is the third installment of a trilogy (preceded by A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More, both of which also starred Clint Eastwood) but this Hollywood co-production works perfectly as a stand-alone film. The plot concerns the misadventures of the title trio, all of whom are in search of $200,000 in buried gold, set against the backdrop of the American Civil War. Director Sergio Leone’s “operatic” visual style combines with Ennio Morricone’s legendarily innovative score to lend The Good, the Bad and the Ugly a singular tone that is at once comical, cartoonish and, in Dave Kehr’s astute phrase, “inexplicably moving.”

8. The Leopard (Visconti, Italy, 1963)

Few directors have been as adept at capturing physical beauty as Luchino Visconti and The Leopard is his most beautiful and perfectly realized film. Adapted from Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s equally great novel, Visconti’s movie tells the story of Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (a fittingly regal and masculine Burt Lancaster) who maneuvers through the political tumult of 1860s Sicily, which includes marrying his revolutionary-minded nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon) to the beautiful, newly upper-class Angelica (Claudia Cardinale). The Leopard‘s climactic ball scene, a virtually non-narrative 40 minute visual feast, is one of the glories of the film medium. The Criterion Collection’s blu-ray release of this title single-handedly justifies the purchase of a blu-ray player.

7. Viridiana (Bunuel, Spain, 1961)

6. L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960)

A woman, Anna, mysteriously disappears while on a yachting trip with friends. The missing woman’s lover, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti), and her best friend, Claudia (Monica Vitti), spend the remainder of the movie looking for her but their search merely becomes the pretext for a love affair as they promptly proceed to forget about her. L’avventura‘s slow pace and lack of narrative resolution have driven many viewers up the wall (including me the first time I saw it) but Michelangelo Antonioni’s stately compositions and underlying philosophical themes have a power as awesome and mysterious as the ocean he so lovingly photographs in the film’s majestic first third. L’avventura‘s 1960 Cannes premiere was one of cinema’s game-changing moments.

5. Le Mepris (Godard, France/Italy, 1963)

The best movie ever made about making a movie (and no, I’m not forgetting 8 1/2), Jean-Luc Godard’s colorful, Italian-shot fantasia stars Michel Piccoli as a beleaguered screenwriter, Brigitte Bardot as his trophy wife, Jack Palance as a blowhard American producer and the great director Fritz Lang as himself, all of whom collide on an unlikely film adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey. Add in a magisterial score by George Delerue, one of the greatest ever written, and the end result is Godard’s finest early work.

4. Chimes at Midnight (Welles, Spain/Italy, 1965)

3. Playtime (Tati, France, 1967)

Jacques Tati achieved perfection with this 1967 masterpiece, the pinnacle of his career. The great director put the largest budget he ever had to work with to good use, constructing enormous steel-and-glass skyscraper sets in order to suggest a futuristic Paris. Inside of this city of encroaching globalization (before the term “globalization” even existed), Tati’s characters — including Monsieur Hulot in a diminished role — bounce around like human pinballs. Shot in deep focus 70mm, the intricate jokes on display take place in the foreground, middleground and background of the frame, and often occur simultaneously, resulting in a film that demands to be seen many times in order to be fully appreciated — even though watching it for the first time is as easy as breathing. To see Playtime projected in 70mm is one of the glories of moviegoing. As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, the film’s most eloquent defender has perceptively asked, “What other movie converts work into play so pleasurably by turning the very acts of seeing and hearing into a form of dancing?”

2. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1966)

Andrei Tarkovsky’s austere, epic biopic of the famed 15th century icon painter is for my money the greatest movie ever made about the life of an artist. Told in vignette fashion, Tarkovsky depicts Rublev’s story against the turbulent backdrop of medieval Russia during the Tatar invasions. The highlight is the climactic sequence where Rublev, who has sworn a vow of silence in protest of the horrors he has seen, witnesses a boy oversee the arduous process of casting a giant bell. The boy saves himself from execution by successfully casting the bell in spite of the fact that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. At the conclusion of this awe-inspiring 30 minute scene, the depiction of a miracle that comes off as a miracle of filmmaking, Rublev is inspired not only to speak again but to continue painting and to go on and create his greatest works.

1. Gertrud (Dreyer, Denmark, 1964)

Carl Dreyer’s final film is an adaptation of Hjalmar Soderberg’s 1906 play of the same title and its deceptively theatrical character is also reminiscent of Ibsen (a protoypical feminist heroine) and Strindberg (the eternal conflict between men and women). But there are few films as truly and wonderfully cinematic as Gertrud, whose unique qualities of stillness, slowness and whiteness are perfectly suited to capturing the title character’s near-religious view of romantic love as an uncompromising ideal. A lot of men seem to love Gertrud but none love her as much as she requires and so she chooses to live alone – without regrets. Unforgettable for its use of long takes (one of which clocks in at 10 minutes) and Nina Pens Rode’s luminous lead performance.


Top 25 Films of the 1950s

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

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

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

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

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

22. Los Olvidados (Bunuel, Mexico, 1950)

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

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

river

20. Ordet (Dreyer, Denmark, 1955)

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

19. Senso (Visconti, Italy, 1954)

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

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

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

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

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

15. Park Row (Fuller, USA, 1952)

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

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

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

13. Floating Clouds (Naruse, Japan, 1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953)

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

4. Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958)

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

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

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

2. Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953)

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

1. The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956)

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


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