Tag Archives: The Searchers

Odds and Ends

Some random thoughts on the three different movies I’ve seen in the past three days at the same Evanston multiplex.

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA, 2012) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 7.9

Although I still haven’t caught up with The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Moonrise Kingdom is easily my favorite Wes Anderson movie since Rushmore. While Anderson’s singular gifts as both writer and director are undeniable, there is something about the progression of his career, a tendency towards increasingly arch stylization, that has rubbed me the wrong way. Candy-box color cinematography and ostentatious set design may have always been important ingredients in the Anderson universe but it’s been a while since his impeccable sense of style has been balanced by anything as emotionally raw as Olivia Williams asking “How would you put it to your friends? Do you want to finger me?” Instead, we’ve gotten an overuse of Bill Murray at his smuggest, a grating sense of whimsy, a distasteful sense of class privilege, an egregious showing off of a bitchin’ record collection, and an approach to both composition and the direction of actors that occasionally resembles those science fair exhibits where butterflies are pinned to a styrofoam board. While Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t correct all of these problems for this Anderson agnostic, I’m happy to report that it does have a genuinely poetic feeling for the emotions of childhood, including an appealingly pervasive and piercing sense of melancholy that lurks just beneath the picture postcard exteriors. And while I could’ve done without some of the film’s more over the top elements (the flood, the lightning strike, the threat of lobotomy, etc.) there’s no denying that the lead child actors are amazing and that their odyssey at its most stirring takes on some of the hypnotic quality of The Night of the Hunter. Also admirable is how Anderson has created a scenario where his too-hip, classic rock “deep cuts” would finally sound appropriate, and yet he goes and loads up the soundtrack with Benjamin Britten and Hank Williams Sr. instead.

The Searchers (John Ford, USA, 1956) – Theatrical viewing


Hmmmm. The Searchers or Madagascar 3? Decisions, decisions!

Teaching John Wayne is a funny thing. Two days ago I took a class to see a one day only screening of a new digital restoration of The Searchers at the Century 12 theatre in Evanston, easily the single best viewing of the movie I’ve ever had. While discussing it with my students afterwards, I was reminded yet again how, in spite of the fact that it is considered by cinephiles to be the quintessential Wayne performance, the quintessential John Ford film, the quintessential western, it just doesn’t play as well to the uninitiated. It is indeed the Wayne-starring movie that has consistently ranked the lowest when I ask my students to rate the films we’ve watched in class at the end of each semester on a scale from 1 – 10. (The Searchers is currently rated 6.8 on my “student tomato-meter,” followed by, in ascending order, Stagecoach with a 7.2, Fort Apache with a 7.5, Rio Bravo with an 8.0 and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance with an 8.3)

What I’ve come to realize from this is that everyone who’s never seen a John Wayne performance has preconceptions about who Wayne is. The Duke vehicles that play the best are therefore the ones that run counter to their expectations. Students expect Wayne to be a stern, moralistic, patriarchal authority figure – someone who is essentially like their fathers or grandfathers, but probably more of an asshole. When they encounter the Wayne of Liberty Valance or Rio Bravo, what they find is someone graceful, super-relaxed and easily likable (Manny Farber’s great line about Wayne’s “hipster sense of how to sit in a chair” is apropos here). This of course is the true Wayne persona, the way he comes across in most films. When my students see The Searchers, which ironically is a very different type of performance for Wayne, it somehow conforms more closely to their negative preconceptions; they are offended by the racist, borderline-crazy Ethan Edwards, with his barely concealed rage towards Native Americans, because they cannot imagine a difference between Wayne and Edwards, nor, for that matter, between John Ford and Edwards. The idea that Ford is viewing Edwards from a critical distance, that the character is meant to be something other than a pure “hero” is difficult for many first time viewers to fathom.

Nonetheless, I relished this particular screening, which made visible many details that had always previously eluded me (even after dozens of viewings that include watching the superb Warner Bros. blu-ray on my 42 inch home television screen), such as the initials “C.S.A.” on Ethan’s belt buckle. That Ethan would be wearing this article of clothing, advertising the “Confederate States of America” three years after the Civil War ended, is a fascinating detail that speaks volumes about his character.

To Rome with Love (Woody Allen, USA/Italy, 2012) – Theatrical viewing / Rating: 7.2

Woody Allen follows up the great Midnight in Paris with another winning, though lighter and frothier, tourist’s-eye-view-of-Europe concoction. The omnibus nature of this Roman holiday deliberately recalls the European anthology films that were popular in American arthouses during Allen’s formative years (including such quintessentially Italian movies as Vittorio de Sica’s Gold of Naples). And while the format is somewhat limiting when combined with Allen’s inherent weaknesses as a writer/director (some of the one-dimensional characterizations found in Paris that seemed excusable by that film’s deft sense of expedient storytelling are actually harder to take in the more bite-sized episodes on display here), Rome‘s frequently hilarious one-liners and general sense of good-spirited fun make this nothing less than a nice, refreshing summer entertainment. The best of the four stories, by far, involves Alec Baldwin as an architect who revisits, Ebenezer Scrooge-style, his younger self in the person of Jesse Eisenberg. Among the rest of the cast, Roberto Benigni is, as usual, about as welcome as a fart in church, which is fortunately more than compensated for by Penelope Cruz as a voluptuous hooker in a skin-tight red dress. Watching the Spanish Cruz playing a hot-blooded Italian is not only delightful but also fitting: no contemporary Italian actresses come as close as she does to inheriting the throne of Sophia Loren.


My Top 200 Films of All Time

In the past week, this blog has reached the milestone of having been viewed 100,000 times. To celebrate, I am posting a list of my favorite films of all time, one that I have been working on for what feels like forever. A wise man once said that favorite movies were always the hardest to write about and, after compiling the list, I heartily concur. I worked mighty hard to write the capsule reviews of my ten favorite movies that you’ll find below, attempting to nail down exactly what qualities they possess that has made them so impactful to me from points of view both personal (as an “ordinary” movie lover) and professional (as a film studies instructor and blogger). Below the list of my ten favorites you will also find a list of 200 runners-up that has been divided into eight groups of 25 in descending order of preference.

This highly personal list, which is actually a list of my 210 favorite movies, has literally been a lifetime in the making. I hope you enjoy it.

The Top Ten:

10. Antonio das Mortes (Rocha, Brazil, 1969)
antonio-das-mortes-slide-1-decolonizing-cinema

9. Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (Akerman, Belgium, 1975)
jeanne

8. To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, USA, 1990)
ToSleepwithAnger

7.
 M (Lang, Germany, 1931)
m

6. Journey to Italy (Rossellini, Italy, 1954)
viaggia

5. A New Leaf (May, USA, 1970)
anewleaf

4. Late Spring (Ozu, Japan, 1949)
latespring

3. Vagabond (Varda, France, 1985)
vagabond

2. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov, Russia, 1929)
vertov2

1. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, Taiwan, 1991)
brighter

First 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

1. L’avventura (Antonioni, Italy, 1960)
2. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956)
3. Viridiana (Bunuel, Spain, 1961)
4. A Woman Under the Influence (Cassavetes, USA, 1974)
5. Gertrud (Dreyer, Denmark, 1964)
6. Tih Minh (Feuillade, France, 1918)
7. Wagon Master (Ford, USA, 1950)
8. Contempt (Godard, France/Italy, 1963)
9. Rear Window (Hitchcock, USA, 1958)
10. A Touch of Zen (Hu, Taiwan, 1971)
11. Our Hospitality (Keaton, USA, 1923)
12. The Decalogue (Kieslowski, Poland, 1988)
13. Wanda (Loden, USA, 1970)
14. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953)
15. City Girl (Murnau, USA, 1930)
16. Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, USA, 1948)
17. Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953)
18. The Rules of the Game (Renoir, France, 1939)
19. Out 1 (Rivette, France, 1971)
20. Andrei Rublev (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1966)
21. Play Time (Tati, France, 1967)
22. L’atalante (Vigo, France, 1934)
23. The Leopard (Visconti, Italy, 1963)
24. Greed (Von Stroheim, USA, 1924)
25. Chimes at Midnight (Welles, Spain/Italy, 1965)

Second 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

26. L’argent (Bresson, France, 1983)
27. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Bunuel, France, 1972)
28. City Lights (Chaplin, USA, 1931)
29. Daisies (Chytilova, Czechoslovakia, 1966)
30. Casablanca (Curtiz, USA, 1942)
31. Earth (Dovzhenko, Ukraine, 1930)
32. The Mother and the Whore (Eustache, France, 1974)
33. Berlin Alexanderplatz (Fassbinder, Germany, 1980)
34. Spring in a Small Town (Fei, China, 1948)
35. Les Vampires (Feuillade, France, 1915-1916)
36. How Green Was My Valley (Ford, USA, 1941)
37. Goodbye to Language (Godard, Switzerland/France, 2014)
38. Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958)
39. Three Times (Hou, Taiwan, 2005)
40. The Ballad of Narayama (Imamura, Japan, 1983)
41. Twin Peaks: The Return (Lynch, USA, 2017)
42. The Band Wagon (Minnelli, USA, 1953)
43. The Story of the Last Chrysanthemums (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1939)
44. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (Murnau, USA, 1927)
45. The Gospel According to St. Matthew (Pasolini, Italy, 1964)
46. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, UK, 1948)
47. Bigger Than Life (N. Ray, USA, 1956)
48. The Phantom Carriage (Sjostrom, Sweden, 1921)
49. Citizen Kane (Welles, USA, 1941)
50. Some Like It Hot (Wilder, USA, 1959)

Third 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

51. Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999)
52. Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, USA, 1952)
53. Ordet (Dreyer, Denmark, 1955)
54. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)
55. Coeur Fidele (Epstein, France, 1923)
56. The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956)
57. Park Row (Fuller, USA, 1952)
58. Two Lane Blacktop (Hellman, USA, 1971)
59. Certified Copy (Kiarostami, Italy/France, 2010)
60. Spies (Lang, Germany, 1928)
61. Boyhood (Linklater, USA, 2014)
62. The Awful Truth (McCarey, USA, 1937)
63. Army of Shadows (Melville, France, 1969)
64. Floating Clouds (Naruse, Japan, 1955)
65. Chinatown (Polanski, USA, 1974)
66. Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, USA, 1959)
67. Charulata (S. Ray, India, 1964)
68. Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais, France/Italy, 1961)
69. My Night at Maud’s (Rohmer, France, 1969)
70. All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, USA, 1955)
71. Stalker (Tarkovsky, Russia, 1979)
72. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)
73. A Fugitive from the Past (Uchida, Japan, 1965)
74. The Crowd (Vidor, USA, 1928)
75. The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler, USA, 1946)

Fourth 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

76. The Long Goodbye (Altman, USA, 1973)
77. Au Hasard Balthazar (Bresson, France, 1966)
78. Le Boucher (Chabrol, France, 1970)
79. The Strange Case of Angelica (De Oliveira, Portugal, 2010)
80. Day of Wrath (Dreyer, Denmark, 1943)
81. 8 1/2 (Fellini, Italy, 1963)
82. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford, USA, 1962)
83. Nouvelle Vague (Godard, France, 1990)
84. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (Hawks, USA, 1953)
85. Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou, Taiwan, 1996)
86. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, USA, 1968)
87. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954)
88. Trouble in Paradise (Lubitsch, USA, 1932)
89. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)
90. The Naked Spur (Mann, USA, 1953)
91. The Headless Woman (Martel, Argentina, 2008)
92. Boy (Oshima, Japan, 1969)
93. Pandora’s Box (Pabst, Germany, 1929)
94. The Taking of Power by Louis XIV (Rossellini, France/Italy, 1966)
95. Black Girl (Sembene, Senegal, 1966)
96. Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach (Straub/Huillet, Germany, 1968)
97. The Lady Eve (Sturges, USA, 1941)
98. The Roaring Twenties (Walsh, USA, 1939)
99. In the Mood for Love (Wong, Hong Kong, 2000)
100. Humanity and Paper Balloons (Yamanaka, Japan, 1937)

Fifth 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

101. The Passenger (Antonioni, Italy, 1975)
102. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 1929)
103. The Unknown (Browning, USA, 1927)
104. Los Olvidados (Bunuel, Mexico, 1950)
105. Love Streams (Cassavetes, USA, 1984)
106. Bicycle Thieves (De Sica, Italy, 1948)
107. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder, Germany, 1974)
108. Zodiac (Fincher, USA, 2007)
109. Pierrot le Fou (Godard, France, 1965)
110. Scarface: The Shame of a Nation (Hawks, USA, 1932)
111. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960)
112. Vengeance is Mine (Imamura, Japan, 1979)
113. The Housemaid (Kim, S. Korea, 1960)
114. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)
115. The Shop Around the Corner (Lubitsch, USA, 1940)
116. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, USA, 2001)
117. The Life of Oharu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1952)
118. Mon Oncle d’Amerique (Resnais, France, 1980)
119. Celine and Julie Go Boating (Rivette, France, 1974)
120. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)
121. Detour (Ulmer, USA, 1945)
122. Cleo from 5 to 7 (Varda, France, 1962)
123. Senso (Visconti, Italy, 1954)
124. The Docks of New York (Von Sternberg, USA, 1928)
125. Touch of Evil (Welles, USA, 1958)

Sixth 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

126. McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman, USA, 1971)
127. Red Desert (Antonioni, Italy, 1964)
128. Pickpocket (Bresson, France, 1959)
129. Anxiety (De Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)
130. Vampyr (Dreyer, Germany/Denmark, 1932)
131. Hindle Wakes (Elvey, UK, 1927)
132. The Quiet Man (Ford, USA/Ireland, 1952)
133. Weekend (Godard, France, 1967)
134. Rio Bravo (Hawks, USA, 1958)
135. A City of Sadness (Hou, Taiwan, 1989)
136. Brief Encounter (Lean, UK, 1945)
137. Touki Bouki (Mambety, Senegal, 1973)
138. Some Came Running (Minnelli, USA, 1958)
139. The Earrings of Madame de . . . (Ophuls, France, 1953)
140. Floating Weeds (Ozu, Japan, 1959)
141. A Nos Amours (Pialat, France, 1983)
142. The Music Room (S. Ray, India, 1958)
143. Grand Illusion (Renoir, France, 1937)
144. Hiroshima Mon Amour (Resnais, France, 1959)
145. Germany Year Zero (Rossellini, Germany/Italy, 1948)
146. Taxi Driver (Scorsese, USA, 1976)
147. The Ascent (Shepitko, Russia, 1977)
148. The Arch (Tang, Hong Kong, 1969)
149. Out of the Past (Tourneur, USA, 1947)
150. Yi Yi (Yang, Taiwan, 2000)

Seventh 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

151. The Piano (Campion, Australia/New Zealand, 1993)
152. The Thing (Carpenter, USA 1982)
153. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy, France, 1967)
154. 35 Shots of Rum (Denis, 2008)
155. The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer, France/Denmark, 1928)
156. Lonesome (Fejos, USA, 1928)
157. Young Mr. Lincoln (Ford, USA, 1939)
158. First Name: Carmen (Godard, France, 1983)
159. North By Northwest (Hitchcock, USA, 1959)
160. Right Now, Wrong Then (Hong, S. Korea, 2015)
161. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)
162. Peppermint Candy (Lee, S. Korea, 1999)
163. Sansho the Bailiff (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1954)
164. Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger, UK, 1947)
165. Laura (Preminger, USA, 1944)
166. In a Lonely Place (N. Ray, USA, 1950)
167. Stromboli (Rossellini, Italy, 1950)
168. Mr. Thank You (Shimizu, Japan, 1936)
169. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (Tati, France, 1953)
170. Life Without Principle (To, Hong Kong, 2011)
171. The Emigrants/The New Land (Troell, Sweden, 1971)
172. The 400 Blows (Truffaut, France, 1959)
173. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (Wiene, Germany, 1920)
174. Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 1994)
175. The Goddess (Wu, China, 1934)

Eighth 25 Runners-Up (Listed Alphabetically By Director’s Family Name):

176. La Captive (Akerman, France, 2000)
177. Killer of Sheep (Burnett, USA, 1977)
178. Holy Motors (Carax, France, 2012)
179. Vitalina Varela (Costa, Portugal, 2019)
180. Brightness (Cisse, Mali, 1987)
181. Daughters of the Dust (Dash, USA, 1991)
182. The Long Day Closes (Davies, UK, 1992)
183. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Demy, France, 1964)
184. Renaldo and Clara (Dylan, USA, 1978)
185. Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein, Russia, 1938)
186. Notorious (Hitchcock, USA, 1946)
187. The Assassin (Hou, Taiwan, 2015)
188. A Touch of Sin (Jia, China, 2013)
189. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)
190. Centre Stage (Kwan, Hong Kong, 1992)
191. Days of Heaven (Malick, USA, 1978)
192. Sans Soleil (Marker, France, 1983)
193. Mikey and Nicky (May, USA, 1976)
194. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)
195. Johnny Guitar (N. Ray, USA, 1952)
196. The Green Ray (Rohmer, France, 1986)
197. Our Neighbor, Miss Yae (Shimazu, Japan, 1934)
198. People on Sunday (Siodmak/Ulmer/Zinnemann, Germany, 1930)
199. The Blue Angel (Von Sternberg, Germany, 1930)
200. Ashes and Diamonds (Wajda, Poland, 1958)


John Ford and the Cinematic Meal

The following essay is based on notes for a lecture I gave in my friend Sara Vaux’s Religion and Film class at Northwestern University in January. The subject of the class was “The Cinematic Meal.” No sex toys were employed during the lecture.

The concept of “the meal” is a prominent and crucial aspect of the John Ford universe. Scenes set around dining room tables are more important in Ford than almost any other director I know. (The stiffest competition would probably come from his contemporary equivalent Clint Eastwood.) But the preponderance of mealtime scenes in Ford is just one facet of the director’s larger obsession with home and the domestic sphere, which is somewhat ironic considering Ford’s association with the western genre. When one thinks of a Ford movie, the first thing to come to mind is probably the spectacular outdoor location photography – in particular scenes shot in Monument Valley, Utah, the central location of thirteen of Ford’s most well known films. I personally associate Ford primarily with the Technicolor imagery of films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Searchers, where the big majestic rock formations of Monument Valley appear almost orange under a bright blue sky. Yet it’s one of the central paradoxes of Ford’s work that although his movies may be full of outdoor adventure, typically taking place in an “uncivilized” corner of his mythological version of the 19th century American West, the man always juxtaposed those scenes with equally essential interior scenes depicting domestic life.

This dichotomy between exterior/interior is also closely related to another Fordian paradox, which is that Ford can be viewed simultaneously as a “masculine” and a “feminine” director. In Ford’s own lifetime he was perceived critically as a man’s man and someone mainly interested in male worlds and masculine codes of behavior. Following the lead of critic Janey Place, Joseph McBride, author of the indispensable Searching for John Ford, has more recently argued that Ford can also be seen as an essentially feminine artist. McBride points out that the things Ford values the most – home, family and tradition – are typically thought of as feminine concerns. This is an acute insight because in order to fully understand Ford’s movies one has to understand how they show, and even obsessively dwell on, the disintegration of the family unit; in film after film, John Ford is continually mourning the loss of the things he loves the most.

There are a couple of mealtime scenes in Ford that perfectly illustrate the aforementioned paradoxes, albeit in strikingly different ways. Take for instance The Searchers from 1956, considered by many to be Ford’s masterpiece; early on in the film, Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran played by John Wayne, arrives at the home of his brother Aaron’s family after a mysterious three year absence. Almost immediately upon Ethan’s homecoming, a band of Comanche Indians run off with the prize cattle of the Jorgensens, the family who live next door to the Edwardses. In a highly memorable scene set around the Edwards family breakfast table, the Reverend Captain Samuel Johnson Clayton, the local lawman (who is also a clergyman!), arrives to swear in as deputies the male members of seemingly every family within a hundred mile radius in order to form a posse to reclaim the cattle.

A depiction of community in long take and long shot (The Searchers):

This swearing in scene, which occurs over coffee and doughnuts, is a good example of how Ford depicts a community of people coming together over a meal. It is one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite Ford scenes because of what he refers to as the “love” depicted onscreen – not only the love that the characters so obviously have for one another but also the love one feels Ford has for all of them. The feeling of a closely knit community is revealed through the dialogue and the acting, of course, but finds its perfect compliment through the way Ford stages the action. For instance, it is absolutely crucial that this scene unfolds mostly in long takes (i.e., with minimal cutting) and in long shots (i.e., where the camera is at a distance from the characters). This allows Ford to more effectively record the hustle and bustle of people coming and going in the dining room; the togetherness of this fledgling society is highlighted by the fact that we can see all of these characters in relation to one another at all times. There is a little bit of tension in the scene, between Ethan Edwards and Captain Clayton, which is typified by cryptic dialogue about the possibility that Ethan might be wanted for a crime in his recent past. Ford underscores the tension between these characters by having the camera track in to a close shot of the two of them. But because Ford never cuts to separate camera angles that isolate Ethan and Clayton from each other, he also lets us know that the conflict between them is ultimately not that serious. The real conflict, Ford seems to be telling us, will lie elsewhere.

The depiction of community in The Searchers can be fruitfully contrasted with a very different mealtime scene from another one of Ford’s best movies, How Green Was My Valley from 1941. The earlier film depicts life in a Welsh coal mining village around the turn of the twentieth century. Specifically, it deals with intergenerational conflict within a single family, the Morgans. The sons in the Morgan family, mostly in their teens and twenties, want to join a newly formed workers’ union but their father opposes the idea. Gwillym Morgan (Donald Crisp) is an old-fashioned patriarch who grew up without unions and thinks that joining one will only lead to trouble – he dismisses the talk of his sons as “socialist nonsense” even though the mine owners have recently slashed employee wages. This impasse reaches a state of crisis at the Morgan family dining room table when the sons, one by one, stand up, leave the table and walk out of the home for good. Ford stages this tragic scene from How Green Was My Valley with brisker cutting than in The Searchers and by frequently showing the Morgan men in separate close-ups, emphasizing their isolation from each other. It is a perfect example of Ford illustrating how the dining room table can be a place where families break apart as well as come together.

The scenes outlined above have another fundamental thing in common; they both succeed brilliantly as primarily visual storytelling (which should not be surprising given Ford’s origins in the silent cinema). In both instances, if you were to watch the scene with the sound turned off you would still be able to understand everything you need to know about the relationships between the characters because of the framing, the camera movement, the cutting and the lack of cutting. Daryl Zanuck, the longtime head of Twentieth Century Fox (with whom Ford frequently butted heads), said late in his life that he came to realize Ford was the greatest of all directors because of his uncanny ability to shoot scenes in such a way that made “even good dialogue secondary or unnecessary.” There is no higher compliment that a movie director can be paid.

Isolating characters in separate close-ups (How Green Was My Valley):


A Golden Age of Hollywood Primer, pt. 2

A continuation of the list of essential titles from Hollywood’s studio system era that I began earlier this week. This part of the list encompasses films released from 1948 – 1959.

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Ophuls, Universal, 1948)

Set in Vienna in the early twentieth century, Max Ophuls’ masterpiece tells the incredible story of the title letter-writer (Joan Fontaine) and her three brief but fateful encounters with a ne’er-do-well pianist (Louis Jourdan) over the course of several decades. His inability to recognize her on the latter two occasions elevates the simple plot, which is recounted via flashback, to the level of high tragedy. Fontaine is heart-breaking in the lead role but the real star is German-born, French-bred director Max Ophuls, whose relentless use of tracking shots has made him virtually synonymous with that type of camera movement and has been a major influence on subsequent directors from Stanley Kubrick to Martin Scorsese to Paul Thomas Anderson.

All About Eve (Mankiewicz, 20th Century Fox, 1950)

The career of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, universally acknowledged as a brilliant screenwriter but still underrated as a director, hit a dizzying career peak with this backstage drama, a witty and highly literate bitch-fest. A ruthlessly ambitious young actress (Anne Baxter) insinuates herself into the life of her idol, a legendary theatrical actress experiencing a mid-life crisis (Bette Davis, magnificent in a role that undoubtedly hit close to home). The whole ensemble cast is perfect including both of the leads, Celeste Holm, Thelma Ritter, Marilyn Monroe and, especially, George Sanders as an acid-tongued theater critic.

Park Row (Fuller, United Artists, 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?

Singin’ in the Rain (Donen/Kelly, MGM, 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.

The Band Wagon (Minnelli, MGM, 1953)

Speaking of which . . . 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.”

The Naked Spur (Mann, MGM, 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.

Night of the Hunter (Laughton, United Artists, 1955)

A bizarre confluence of talented people came together in 1955 to bring to the screen this one of a kind masterpiece – a cross between a Brothers Grimm fairy tale and a gothic horror film. This includes Davis Grubb, who provided the pure Americana source novel, film critic-turned-screenwriter James Agee, veteran British actor Charles Laughton (directing for the first only time), and Robert Mitchum, playing way outside of himself as the psychotic preacher of the title. The luminescent cinematography is courtesy of the great Stanley Cortez (The Magnificent Ambersons).

All That Heaven Allows (Sirk, Universal, 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.

Bigger Than Life (Ray, 20th Century Fox, 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!”

The Searchers (Ford, Warner Brothers, 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.

Vertigo (Hitchcock, Paramount, 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.

Anatomy of a Murder (Preminger, Columbia, 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.

Some Like It Hot (Wilder, United Artists, 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.


Top 25 Films of the 1950s

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

24. 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.

23. 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.

22. 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.

21. 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.

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

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

18. 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.

17. 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.

16. 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?

15. 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.

14. 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.

13. 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.

12. 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.

11. 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!”

10. 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.

9. 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.

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. 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.

6. 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.

5. 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.

4. Rear Window (Hitchcock, USA, 1954)

Rear Window 7

3. Wagon Master (Ford, USA, 1950)

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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. 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.


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