Tag Archives: The Lady Vanishes

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.


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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