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Tag Archives: Un condamné à mort s’est échappé

The Difference Between Robert Bresson in 1934 and 1956

Having finally caught up with Robert Bresson’s deeply obscure and uncharacteristically slapstick first film Les Affaires Publiques, I decided to throw this together just for fun – two screencaps I made that illustrate the difference between the director in 1934 and 1956.

A sentry box, manned and decorated with polka-dots, in Les Affaires Publiques (1934):

A sentry box, unmanned and unadorned, in A Man Escaped (1956):

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A Classic French Cinema Primer, Pt. 2

A continuation of the list of essential pre-Nouvelle Vague French sound era movie titles that I began earlier this week. This part of the list encompasses films released from 1946 – 1959.

La Belle et la Bete (Cocteau, 1946)

Jean Cocteau, with an uncredited assist from Rene Clement, directed this beautiful and poetic adaptation of the well-known fairy tale about a young woman, Belle, who sacrifices herself to a grotesque half-man/half-beast creature in order to save her father’s life. But the more she gets to know the beast, the more she realizes his hideous exterior conceals a sensitive soul . . . This was a belated follow-up to Cocteau’s Surrealist classic debut, The Blood of a Poet, and it was worth the wait. A million miles from the Disney-fication of such material, Cocteau’s film begins with the unforgettable title card “…and now, we begin our story with a phrase that is like a time machine for children: Once Upon a Time…” and then proceeds to capture the true essence of fairy tales, with all of the darkness that implies.

Jour de Fete (Tati, 1949)

Jacques Tati’s underrated first feature is a delightful slapstick comedy about Francois (Tati himself as a forerunner to his beloved M. Hulot character), a rural postman who becomes obsessed with delivering mail efficiently after viewing a documentary on the high-tech U.S. Postal Service. Although there is dialogue in the film, it remains secondary to Tati’s incredible sight gags, which rival the best of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in their sheer ingenuity (the runaway bicycle scene is a standout). This was shot in a primitive color process known as Thomson Color though not seen that way until 1995 when Tati’s daughter oversaw the development of a new version that restored the film as closely as possible to her father’s original vision. A revelation.

Le Silence de la Mer (Melville, 1949)

Jean-Pierre Melville was a spiritual godfather to the Nouvelle Vague not only because his work expressed such an obvious love of cinema but also due to the fierce independence evidenced by the low-budget/shot-on-location/documentary-style aesthetic of his early films. This self-financed World War II drama concerns a German soldier (Howard Vernon) who takes up residence with an elderly Frenchman and his niece while convalescing from a wound. Neither of the French characters speak a word as the German regales them with verbose monologues but the niece eventually falls in love with the soldier, a feeling on which she will never be able to act. This austere and intimate chamber drama is played out as a series of carefully orchestrated glances aided by a use of voice-over narration that would clearly influence not just the New Wave but Robert Bresson as well.

Casque d’Or (Becker, 1952)

Jacques Becker’s magnificent recreation of La Belle Epoque is an exquisite romantic melodrama about a gangster’s moll (a terrific Simone Signoret) who also becomes the object of affection of two other men – with predictably tragic results. But Casque d’Or (the film takes its title from the nickname of Signoret’s character) is less about plot than atmosphere. All of the period details feel correct but it is the beautiful cinematography of Robert Lefebvre that elevates this to the front rank of the best French movies ever; the almost overly-bright, poetic, Impressionistic images lend the movie a nostalgic tone even when, or perhaps especially when, the story is at its darkest.

The Earrings of Madame de . . . (Ophuls, 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 their perfect complement 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.

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday (Tati, 1953)

Jacques Tati’s classic comedy, the first outing for his legendary M. Hulot character, opens with a sly title card asking the viewer not to expect a plot since the movie is about a holiday and holidays are meant to be fun. From there we follow the bumbling title character as he arrives at a beach-side resort hotel and, in a series of plotless and near wordless scenes, proceeds to comically wreak havoc everywhere he goes. (Especially memorable is Hulot’s riotous visit to the tennis court.) Not only a very funny film but, thanks to Tati’s eye for the geometry of the frame, a very beautiful one as well.

The Wages of Fear (Clouzot, 1953)

Henri-Georges Clouzot’s masterpiece of machismo details the harrowing adventures of four down-on-their-luck European expatriates in Venezuela who agree to the extremely dangerous job of transporting truckloads of nitroglycerine across South American mountain roads in exchange for a large sum of money. This is a gritty, tense, brutal and undeniably exciting adventure movie that also offers, in the character of an anti-union American oil company boss, an intriguing critique of capitalism besides. The Wages of Fear deservedly made Yves Montand an international star and went on to exert a big influence on Sam Peckinpah who tipped his hat to the opening of this film with a similar children-torturing-insects scene at the beginning of The Wild Bunch many years later.

French Cancan (Renoir, 1954)

After a 15 year exile, in part due to the Nazi occupation of France, Jean Renoir’s homecoming saw him reunite with actor Jean Gabin to create the most distinctly Gallic film of his famed career. French Cancan tells the story of Henri Danglard (Gabin at his most charismatic), the womanizing impresario who founds the Moulin Rouge and helps to inaugurate the Cancan dance craze while staying just a half-step ahead of his creditors. Françoise Arnoul and Maria Felix play Danglard’s rival romantic interests, both of whom realize that they will have to take a back seat to the scoundrel’s true love: his career. Renoir’s gorgeous visual style takes its cues from the lithographs of Toulouse-Lautrec, most impressively in the Cancan climax, which I’ve described elsewhere on this site as a “near orgiastic riot of form and color.”

Touchez Pas au Grisbi (Becker, 1954)

Jacques Becker segues from the underworld of La Belle Epoque in Casque d’Or to the gangsters of the modern world in Touchez Pas au Grisbi, a massively influential crime/noir film that laid down a template for Jean-Pierre Melville and many others to follow. The plot centers on Max (Gabin again, this time in world-weary mode), an aging gangster whose retirement after a last big score proves short-lived when his former partner is kidnapped and he is asked to put up their loot as ransom. Marvelous black and white cinematography compliments what is essentially a love story between two men, plus Gabin gets to slap a lot of people around. Look sharp for future stars Lino Ventura and Jeanne Moreau in minor roles.

Lola Montes (Ophuls, 1955)

The true story of the infamous slut of the title (Martine Carol) whose sexual appetite was so voracious that she wound up becoming a 19th century circus attraction. As Rafael Nadal once said, “How crazy is the life?” Max Ophuls’ great final film features an ambitiously non-chronological structure, a la Citizen Kane, that alternates between present day scenes where the circus ringmaster (Peter Ustinov) recounts Lola’s exploits with flashback scenes to her youth, beginning with a tryst with Franz Liszt and continuing through many other men. Ophuls’ trademark bravura visual style is taken to an almost freakish extreme with the addition of Eastmancolor but Carol’s performance is the key here; she and Ophuls conspire to make Lola a figure of intense sympathy and identification throughout. Unfortunately, Lola Montes was a commercial disaster upon release and was soon heavily recut from its original 140 minute version. The recent restoration, which can be seen on Criterion’s magnificent 115 minute blu-ray, is the most complete the film is ever likely to be.

Bob le Flambeur (Melville, 1956)

The film where Melville became Melville. With a tip of his fedora to The Asphalt Jungle, the brilliant French writer/director tells an irresistible shaggy dog heist story about one Bob Montagne, an aging gangster/gambler who dutifully maintains an impeccable sense of personal style even when on a losing streak. Eventually, Bob’s bad luck causes him to hatch a scheme to rob the casino in Deauville, a journey to the end of night that leads to one of the wittiest punch lines in cinema. Melville’s depiction of the Montmartre demimonde is so pungent you can smell it and his mise-en-scene, with its chiaroscuro lighting and emphasis on black and white checkerboard patterns, set a new standard for cinematic cool.

A Man Escaped (Bresson, 1956)

Robert Bresson’s minimalist drama, based on the memoir of a real life French Lieutenant’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 unbearably intense degree. This is on my short list of near-perfect movies.

Pickpocket (Bresson, 1959)

Robert Bresson’s loose adaptation of Crime and Punishment transposes Dostoevsky’s novel to contemporary Paris, replacing Raskolnikov’s senseless murder of an old woman with the story of a young man who drifts into a life of crime for which he was not made. What remains the same are the hero’s confused Nietzschean beliefs, the cat-and-mouse game he plays with the local police inspector and the hint of spiritual rehabilitation that is triggered by the love of a young woman. The actual pickpocketing sequences are virtuoso pieces of camera choreography but, as in all of Bresson’s movies, the sum is greater than its individual parts, resulting in a deeply moving, spiritually exultant work of art.


Filmmaker Interview: Jonathan Hourigan, pt. 1

From January 21st through February 29th the Gene Siskel Film Center will hold a complete retrospective of the films of my favorite director of all time, the French master Robert Bresson. In anticipation of this happy event, I am pleased to present an interview with London-based filmmaker and teacher Jonathan Hourigan, who worked on the crew of L’argent, Bresson’s great final film.

Jonathan is a graduate of Oxford University and the National Film and Television School. His own short and feature-length films have played to acclaim at festivals around the world. In addition to his work as a filmmaker and teacher, he continues to be involved in preserving Bresson’s legacy. Jonathan and I became acquainted when he contacted me after reading a post on this blog about Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer.

I conducted this interview via e-mail and tried to avoid asking him about his work on L’argent (since he has already spoken about it at length in this great interview: Offscreen Interview)

MGS: You were responsible for organizing a Bresson retrospective in London in 1981 before you ever met and worked with the man. How did you first discover his films and do you remember what your first impressions were?

JH: At 18 or 19, during the year between school and university, my interest in photography began to be superceded by an interest in cinema. I was living in Worthing at the time, a seaside town on the south coast of England and that year I saw Altman’s A Wedding and both The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now in the cinema. I also saw Victor Erice’s magnificent Spirit of the Beehive in 16mm, projected onto a white sheet at the West Sussex College of Art and Design, where my uncle was teaching. It was Erice’s film which kindled in me the initial desire to make films but there were, at that time, very few opportunities to see other films of this kind.

So I began reading books about the cinema and that’s how I came across Bresson, first through articles by Andre Bazin, Roy Armes and Gavin Lambert. Something about his formal concerns attracted me I think. And then, in my first term at university, I saw Au hasard Balthazar at the University Film Society. I was transfixed and still think it’s one of Bresson’s most seductive films, despite its very tough narrative. Soon afterwards I discovered that Une femme douce was being screened in London and so I went to London to see that film. It’s been a source of long-term regret that Une femme douce is not more widely available and better known, as I think it one of Bresson’s most expressive films and a particular favourite of mine. It was a big influence on my own first film. And with these two films, Au hasard Balthazar and Une femme douce, my love for Bresson’s films was secured.

I was drawn consciously, I think, to Bresson’s impeccable, austere aesthetic. But I can also see, in retrospect, that the Catholic and redemptive themes and inflection of his narratives must at least sub-consciously have attracted me, having been brought up Catholic, even if lapsed by that time. I organised the retrospective primarily so that I could see the remaining films. Actually, I did meet Bresson whilst preparing the retrospective. I visited him in Paris in, I think, the Spring of 1981 and I wrote both about the films (some of them, I now confess, unseen by me at the time!) and the meeting with Bresson in Paris in an early edition of Stills magazine.

MGS: Unlike Paul Schrader, I actually think Bresson’s movies got better over time, or at least the end results seemed to correspond more closely to what he was trying to achieve. (I’m thinking particularly of the way they became increasingly minimalist, with the last few movies featuring only diegetic music.) Of course, neither Bresson nor you could have been aware that L’argent would be his final movie but I think it does feel, appropriately, like a last testament. Were you aware while working on it that it would be a special film even within his extraordinary body of work?

JH: First of all, the later films certainly seem more austere, more closely corresponding to some of the rigours explored in Bresson’s Notes on the Cinematographer, among them the exclusive use of diegetic sound but also including, for example, the use of a single standard lens, non-professional ‘models’ and the creation of flattened images.

But secondly, these elements, on their own, aren’t the summation of what Bresson was ‘trying to achieve’. Bresson contrasted his notion of Cinematography with conventional Cinema, with the latter indebted to theatrical traditions and methods. What, I think, Bresson pursued, in short, was what one might call a documentary of emotions, with the mechanical means of apprehension – camera and tape recorder – capable of capturing models’ authentic, unconscious states of soul. Hence, to some extent, the non-professional models and the numerous takes for which Bresson was renowned. And these fragments, captured in flattened and uninflected images, are then given structure and meaning – for Bresson, are transformed – through a rhythmic editing strategy and of course, with the creation of a resonant soundtrack – Bresson’s approach to sound, as you’ll know, is unique and noted by many commentators. This is all complex, subtle and far from self-evident stuff – and I’m only scratching the surface here – but one does not have to accept all of it in order to find Bresson’s films uniquely expressive. However, much of this territory is explored and clarified in Bresson’s short, aphoristic Notes on the Cinematographer which is, along with the films, a crucial source for those interested in Bresson’s films and his approach to filmmaking.

As to the improving quality of Bresson’s oeuvre, well, that strikes me as a third issue. There are certainly fierce debates around this issue, with Schrader and others suggesting a mid-career pinnacle, with the later films perhaps losing the redemptive or transcendental aspect of the earlier films. The shift to darker territory – Bresson might have said more “lucid” territory – does not alienate me, or, in and of itself, suggest a tailing off in the quality of the films. Leaving aside L’argent, which I will come to, Une Femme Douce and Lancelot du Lac, in particular, amongst the ‘later films’, seem to me to be masterpieces.

As for L’argent, for me it was my first experience of being involved in a film’s production and so quite hard to assess. But I was aware that it was a difficult film to make, with tight production parameters. Equally, viewing rushes and edited sequences suggested something very special, to my eyes and ears at least, from very early on and soon after the completion of Principal Photography, a first cut was screened which was already powerful and compelling. And the film only became tighter and sharper as post production continued.

I suspect that making a relatively small number of films in a long career ensures that each and every one of them feels ‘special’, at least at the time. On the other hand, at the time Bresson was hoping – even expecting – to make his long-cherished film Genesis in the near future and so there was no sense, in 82/83, of L’argent being his “last testament”. In addition to which, the film’s reception at Cannes in 1983 was less than fulsome.

Looking at L’Argent now, however, the film inevitably takes on the aspect of “last testament” and it’s certainly a remarkable and profound film, worthy of assuming that role. It is passionate, prescient, humane and quite simply, a truly great film. And after all, it’s not for nothing that it was the “Top Film of the 1980’s” in one of your own recent lists. There are any number of wonderful moments and sequences in the film but I’ve always been particularly fascinated by the film’s remarkable and ambiguous final shot, the crowd still looking into the cafe, although Yvon, flanked by police officers, has passed through the crowd and been taken away. It’s such a resonant image, so perfectly drawing together the thematic threads of this extraordinary film and perhaps, even, of Bresson’s entire oeuvre.

MGS: One aspect of L’argent that really sets it apart from Bresson’s previous work is the presence of Christian Patey as Yvon. When I think of Bresson’s male “models,” I think of them as typically being physically graceful, slightly feminine and possessed of a soulful, almost ethereal, beauty. Patey really bucks this trend and brings a masculine energy to the part, coming across almost like a monster at times. Why do you think Bresson chose to cast him?

JH: Christian Patey is certainly striking in L’argent and he has a powerful physical presence. His weight – physical and moral – is palpable throughout the film. But I wonder if he is really so different from Bresson’s other male models. Or, rather, I wonder if they are quite so homogenous as you suggest.

I suspect that the ‘typical’ Bressonian male ‘model’ might be Claude Laydu as the Curé d’Ambricourt in Journal d’un curé de campagne, or Martin LaSalle as the eponymous Pickpocket, perhaps even Francois Leterrier as Fontaine in Un condamné à mort s’est échappé. But even these three are somewhat different from one another. Graceful, yes. Soulful, yes, although in some cases only belatedly. Slightly feminine? Well, perhaps Laydu. LaSalle, by contrast, is almost feral – or perhaps feline and thus feminine? – for much of Pickpocket, whilst Leterrier has masculine – even martial – honour and conviction throughout.

Antoine Monnier as Charles in Le diable probablement and Guillaume de Forets as Jacques in Quatre nuits d’un rêveur both have a certain feminine beauty but at the very least, it seems to me that there’s no single dominant type for Bresson’s male ‘models’. I can certainly see some of Christian Patey’s sturdy masculinity in Luc Simon as the eponymous Lancelot du Lac and not simply because of Lancelot’s encasement in armour. There is physical and moral weight – flawed and burdensome – in Simon’s Lancelot, just as there is in Patey’s Yvon.

Why did Bresson choose Christain Patey? I don’t know. Intuition I suspect. Certainly it was inspired casting, as was Vincent Risterucci as Lucien, the thorn in Yvon’s side. And also Caroline Lang as Yvon’s wife Elise, Marc Ernest Fourneau as Norbert and Bruno Lapeyre as Martial, the young, bourgeois Parisian students, as well as Sylvie Van den Elsen and Michel Briguet as the woman and her father in the country. It is, almost throughout, a brilliantly ‘cast’ film, with the vibrant and differentiated presences of Bresson’s ‘models’ so luminous. It’s one of the things that really stands out about L’argent.

MGS: Funny, I was thinking of Leterrier specifically when I used the word “feminine” because of his slight physical stature and manual dexterity. I also think it’s significant that he describes making ropes based on memories of watching his mother braid his sister’s hair.

To be continued . . .


Bresson/Eastwood: A Strange Symmetry

The following newly written essay is based on notes for a lecture I gave at my friend Sara Vaux’s Religion and Film class at Northwestern University last year.

“The filmed sequence shows a prisoner’s unsuccessful escape from a prison van, from the first attempt to the last consequence. The sequence consists of about forty setups, each one clear and simple, with no regard for superficial beauty. Each setup makes sense only in connection with the preceding one and the one that succeeds it.

The necessary prerogatives for the escape – the fugitive, his hand, the door handle inside the car, a vehicle and a streetcar which force, or almost force, the prison van to stop – are clearly shown in their interrelationships. In relatively quick succession, we see first the fugitive, who stares ahead; then the road, where in a moment a vehicle may force the prison van to stop; then the fugitive’s hand, reaching for the door handle.”

– from Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s 1966 application to the German Film and Television Academy, Berlin. Fassbinder was shown the opening scene of Robert Bresson’s A Man Escaped, without being told the title, and asked to analyze it. Fassbinder’s application to the school was rejected.

To many film critics and historians, it would seem perverse to suggest that Robert Bresson and Clint Eastwood might have anything in common. Bresson’s movies come across as self-consciously crafted works of “high art,” the seriousness of which is signaled by their esteemed source material (e.g., 19th century Russian literature), religious overtones in the images and dialogue and, in the earlier films, the use of canonical classical music (Mozart, Schubert, Lully) on the soundtrack. These signposts are in part what has precipitated endless critical discussion of the “transcendental” qualities of Bresson’s cinema. Eastwood’s movies, by contrast, are often relegated to a less elevated sphere of discussion. (A refreshing exception is the staff of Cahiers du Cinema who, forty three years after naming A Man Escaped the best film of 1956, daringly named The Bridges of Madison County the best film of the 1990s in a decade-ending critic’s poll.) Eastwood’s movie star persona still tends to be the focus of the reviews of even the movies he directs but doesn’t star in, as opposed to whatever ideas he might have as a filmmaker. And because of his long associations with the detective thriller and western genres, Eastwood is still thought of primarily as a genre director. Some schools of critical thought unfortunately believe that true artists do not work with generic conventions. Indeed, Bresson never made a movie that could be classified as a genre piece.

Nevertheless, to look at the actual nuts and bolts filmmaking practices of each director is to notice a strange symmetry between them in regards to form. And this ultimately translates to a symmetry in regards to ethics as well. Fassbinder’s analysis of the opening scene of A Man Escaped, a brilliant close reading of Bresson’s style, could also apply to many, many scenes directed by Clint Eastwood but not, I believe, the films of most other contemporary directors. For example, Fassbinder notes how Bresson clearly shows us all of the elements of a scene in their “interrelationships.” Eastwood, the director, has a comparable clarity of form to Bresson regarding how images relate to each other – Eastwood allows viewers to see, in a simple and direct way, exactly what he wants them to see, no more and no less, through similar chains of interrelated images.

The scene in all of Eastwood’s movies that most obviously resembles the opening of A Man Escaped is the climactic scene of The Bridges of Madison County, a terrific film that transcends the trashy romance novel on which it is based. In that heart-stopping sequence, Francesca Johnson (Meryl Streep) is in the passenger seat of her husband’s truck as the two are stopped in traffic in the rain. Robert Kincaid (Eastwood), the man with whom she has just had an affair, is in the truck in front of them, unbeknownst to the husband. Francesca looks at the passenger side door handle and contemplates whether to open the door and “escape” from her husband’s truck in much the same way that Lieutenant Fontaine in A Man Escaped has to decide whether to try escaping from the prison van. If she doesn’t flee from her husband and leave with Robert at that precise moment, she knows he will drive away, out of town and out of her life forever.

What these scenes have in common is ultimately something more than the superficial similarity of a narrative situation where a character is attempting to determine whether to jump out of a stalled vehicle. The deeper affinity lies in the fact that in each instance suspense is being generated by the director through purely visual storytelling; in Eastwood’s case he makes us feel the power of Francesca’s dilemma through cinematography and editing, clearly showing us the interrelationships between Francesca, her husband, the door handle, the traffic light, and Robert’s reflection in the rearview mirror of the truck in front of her. This is a perfect illustration of Fassbinder’s formulation that “each shot makes sense only in relation to the one that precedes it and the one that succeeds it.” Sometimes a door handle is just a door handle. In Eastwood’s film, because of the context in which it is carefully placed, it’s a door handle that can make you cry.

Another aspect of Fassbinder’s analysis that I think can be applied to Eastwood as well as Bresson is the “disregard for superficial beauty.” It is often difficult for filmmakers to resist the temptation to show beautiful images but this is precisely what Bresson and Eastwood do. They both believe in showing what is necessary at the expense of showing something beautiful. This is particularly striking in Eastwood’s case given how closely he is identified with the western, a genre known for its pictorial beauty. But from High Plains Drifter to Unforgiven, Eastwood doesn’t typically linger on shots of sunsets, landscapes or other types of picture-postcard scenery commonly associated with the genre.

Finally, both Bresson and Eastwood might be said to have a minimalist or “essentialist” style, ruthlessly paring down the image to only what they deem is its most essential elements, but they achieve this in different ways. The most prominent way Eastwood pares down his images is through the use of low-key lighting. Eastwood has consistently made the darkest movies (literally, if not figuratively) in Hollywood over the past several decades. Working with talented cinematographers like Jack Green and Tom Stern, Eastwood submerges his images in darkness as a means of directing viewers’ eyes to exactly what he wants them to see. Bresson achieves similar ends by favoring a shallower focus image and by fragmenting the human body into close-ups of its various parts.

What does this have to do with ethics? The essentialist style of both men is ultimately pressed to the service of the same theme: redemption. Eastwood is interested in redemption in terms of social justice, Bresson is interested in redemption as a kind of spiritual transformation that occurs inside of an individual. For Eastwood’s purposes, it’s important that he paints the broadest possible portrait of society so that he can more effectively juxtapose his individual protagonists against it – hence his sometimes misunderstood melodramatic style. Society in Eastwood is frequently portrayed as corrupt and incapable of providing true justice; therefore it is usually up to one individual to restore justice and a sense of social order. This is most obvious in the westerns (think of the depictions of community in the towns of Lago in High Plains Drifter and Big Whiskey in Unforgiven) but it’s also true of the contemporary films as well. Eastwood’s uncluttered visual style is especially important here because “unnecessary” images will only get in the way of his ambitious societal portraits. Surely Clint Eastwood, a master of shorthand communication and a melodramatist par excellence, is the only man who could have made as ambitious a film as Invictus clock in at a relatively lean 134 minutes!

Robert Bresson approaches the theme of redemption differently. Because Bresson is interested in the redemption of individual souls, he prioritizes interiority and subjectivity. Bresson constantly looks for ways to draw us into the inner lives of his characters: fragmentation, voice-over narration, neutral acting, etc. Interestingly, in comparison to the melodramas of Eastwood, society is depicted as something abstract and almost unreal in Bresson because his movies are so relentlessly focused on the individual. (Many critics have pointed out that, for this reason, some of Bresson’s contemporary movies like Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne and Une Femme Douce seem to be taking place in a distant, dreamy past.) This means that whatever measure of redemption Bresson’s characters manage to achieve is pointedly not felt by the larger society within the film, unlike in Eastwood’s films where that impact is often felt with a vengeance. The community in Diary of a Country Priest, for instance, does not know or care whether the priest has received God’s grace before dying. The important thing is that the character feels it and, if we are seeing and hearing the movie properly, hopefully we feel it too.


Top Ten Home Video Releases of 2010

Below is a list of my fifty favorite home video releases of 2010 – the top ten in preferential order and a 40-way tie(!) for number eleven. The only titles below that I didn’t actually purchase were the Von Sternberg, Costa and Gaumont box sets, which I rented instead, and that was mainly due to my fear that they will become available in better quality Blu-ray editions in the near future. In making the list, I arrived at my rankings by averaging my estimation of the quality of the movie as a whole, the image/sound transfer and the supplemental material. I also decided to spread the love around a little by including only one film per distributor in my top ten. Criterion and Masters of Cinema would have otherwise locked up most of those slots and I believe that a lot of other distribution companies deserve recognition for the brilliant work they’ve done. As this list should make clear, we are living in a true golden age of home video where the history of world cinema is readily available in breathtaking quality as it never has been before (at least for anyone with a multi-region Blu-ray player).

The Top Ten (preferential order):

10. Dust in the Wind (Hou, Taiwan, 1987) – Central Pictures / Sony Music Blu-ray

This disc isn’t perfect. For one thing, the image is interlaced instead of progressive scan. But this is such a quantum leap over the old non-anamorphic DVDs in every other area (clarity, color, depth and contrast), that I was still ecstatic to see it. The film itself, a delicate love story about teenage country bumpkins who move to Taipei in search of greater opportunity in the 1960s, remains one of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s best early works, paving the way for the opening segment of his masterpiece Three Times. I had previously thought of the cinematography in this movie as merely functional. Sony’s Blu-ray proves that it’s actually very beautiful. I can’t wait for more HHH in HD!

9. Psycho (Hitchcock, USA, 1960) – Universal Blu-ray

Universal haven’t gotten things 100% right when it comes to Blu-ray. They haven’t been as meticulous about image quality as, say, Warner Brothers (see last year’s perfect North By Northwest disc for comparison), and I find their generic menus especially annoying. But I did enjoy Psycho‘s subtle but effective new 5.1 surround sound mix, which did not require the recording of new music/effects tracks like the blasphemous 1990s “restoration” of Vertigo. Bottom line: this version is the best that Alfred Hitchcock’s most disturbing film has ever looked and sounded on home video and is an essential addition to any serious movie library. More here.

8. Le Cercle Rouge (Melville, France, 1970) – Studio Canal Blu-ray

Jolly am I made by what I consider the greatest of all heist pictures, a crime subgenre of which I am quite fond! Studio Canal deserves kudos for being the first to marry Jean-Pierre Melville, the undisputed king of French film noir, with the Blu-ray format. The end result is a thing of beauty, more than making up for their botched job of Godard’s Le Mepris from last year. Now bring on the Criterion Army of Shadows. Full review here.

7. A Star Is Born (Cukor, USA, 1954) – Warner Brothers Blu-ray

Warner Brothers has consistently bested the other Hollywood studios when it comes to putting out lovingly restored, high-quality Blu-ray discs of their “catalogue titles.” For me, their best 2010 offering was this new high-def transfer of Ron Haver’s 1983 labor-of-love restoration of George Cukor’s epic musical/melodrama. Judy Garland’s force of nature performance as rising star Vicki Lester has caused many to regard this as the greatest “one woman show” in film history but I think it’s James Mason’s quietly devastating performance as fading movie star Norman Maine that gives A Star is Born its soul. The Blu-ray format is particularly well-suited to Cukor’s mise-en-scene, which alternates between brilliantly vibrant Technicolor sequences and unusually dark images with diffused shadows dominating.

6. A Man Escaped (Bresson, France, 1956) – Gaumont Blu-ray

French distributor Gaumont made my dreams come true by releasing one of my favorite movies ever in a region-free edition with English subtitles. The image quality may not provide as eye-poppingly drastic of an upgrade over previous editions as did their immaculate restoration of Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (also available region-free with English subs). But A Man Escaped, an exciting prison escape drama made in Robert Bresson’s inimitable “essentialist” style, is simply the better movie and, indeed, one of the towering achievements of the film medium. Hopefully, the rest of his catalogue will soon follow. Full review here.

5. Lucky Star (Borzage, USA, 1929) – Carlotta Blu-ray

The still-underrated Frank Borzage is the most romantic filmmaker of all time and Lucky Star from 1929 may be his finest hour: a luminous melodrama concerning the love that blossoms between a farm girl (the always superb Janet Gaynor) and a disabled WWI vet (a never better Charles Farrell). Incredibly, this was a “lost” film until a print turned up in the Netherlands in 1990. That print serves as the source for this transfer and appears to be in remarkably good shape — better than any prints Fox had in their vaults of Borzage’s other silents. Strange that a Hollywood masterpiece like this would only be available on Blu-ray from a distributor in France, but this is an essential purchase for lovers of silent film.

4. Metropolis (Lang, Germany, 1927) – Kino Blu-ray

Fritz Lang’s sci-fi masterpiece looks more prescient than ever in this “complete” cut, in which 25 minutes have been restored for the first time since the film’s 1927 premiere. The missing footage was long considered one of cinema’s holy grails (alongside the missing footage from Greed and The Magnificent Ambersons), so this release is cause for celebration. Kino’s Blu-ray is perfect. More here.

3. Late Spring / The Only Son (Ozu, Japan, 1949) – BFI Blu-ray

Last summer, the British Film Institute did the world of cinephilia a massive favor by releasing four of Yasujiro Ozu’s best films on Blu-ray (with more on the way in 2011). Two of his most sublime domestic dramas about intergenerational family conflict, The Only Son from 1936 and Late Spring from 1949, appeared on a single disc, automatically vaulting it to the top of my list of the year’s best releases. This is how all high-definition transfers should look — as faithful as possible to the experience of seeing the films as they would look projected in a theater, including whatever damage is inherent to the original film elements. Very film-like and very beautiful. Full review here.

2. Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy (Rossellini, Italy/Germany, 1945-1948) – The Criterion Collection DVD

If this had been a Blu-ray release, it would have unquestionably been number one on my list. But since good transfers of Roberto Rossellini’s monumental World War II trilogy have never truly existed on home video in any format, I can only be grateful to Criterion for the hard work that must have gone into restoring these films and presenting them on standard DVD in the impressive shape in which they appear here. (Paisan in particular seems to have been rescued from oblivion.) The movies themselves are definitive neo-realism, using a mix of professional and non-professional actors, location shooting with studio sets, and relaying ambiguous, loosely constructed narratives concerning the Italian resistance to the German occupation (Rome Open City) and the aftermath of the war in both Italy (Paisan) and Germany (Germany Year Zero). But it’s the copious supplemental material, including feature-length documentaries, interviews with Rossellini and an enlightening “visual essay” by Tag Gallagher, that pushes this to the front ranks of Criterion’s most important releases ever.

1. City Girl (F.W. Murnau, USA, 1930) – Eureka!/Masters of Cinema Blu-ray

F.W. Murnau’s romantic masterpiece, without which Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven would be unthinkable, finally gets the treatment it deserves from the good folks at Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label. The story is the flip-side of Sunrise, where the good-hearted title character from Chicago moves with her new husband to a Minnesota farm only to find her existence made a living hell by her live-in father-in-law. This contains some of the most visually ecstatic and transcendental moments in all of cinema, such as the swooping, swooning camera movement that follows Charles Farrell and Mary Duncan as they run through a wheat field before collapsing to the ground in newlywed bliss. The image quality of this Blu-ray is so clean and so pristine that it sets the bar impossibly high for all future HD transfers of silent-era films.

Runners Up (alphabetical order):

11. 3 Silent Classics by Joseph Von Sternberg (Von Sternberg, Criterion DVD)
12. Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, Kino Blu-ray)
13. Bigger Than Life (Ray, Criterion Blu-ray)
14. Black Narcissus (Powell/Pressburger, Criterion Blu-ray)
15. Breathless (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray) Full review here.
16. Close-Up (Kiarostami Criterion Blur-ray)
17. Cronos (Del Toro, Criterion Blu-ray)
18. Days of Heaven (Malick, Criterion Blu-ray)
19. Early Summer / What Did the Lady Forget? (Ozu, BFI Blu-ray)
20. The Exorcist (Friedkin, Warner Brothers Blu-ray)
21. Fallen Angels (Wong, Kino Blu-ray)
22. Fantomas (Feuillade, Kino DVD)
23. French Can Can (Renoir, Gaumont Blu-ray)
24. Gaumont Treasures 1897 – 1913 (Feuillade/Guy/Perret, Kino DVD)
25. Happy Together (Wong, Kino Blu-ray)
26. The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, Summit Blu-ray)
27. The Leopard (Visconti, Criterion Blu-ray)
28. Letters from Fontainhas: Three Films By Pedro Costa (Costa, Criterion DVD)
29. Lola Montes (Ophuls, Criterion Blu-ray)
30. M (Lang, Criterion Blu-ray)
31. Make Way for Tomorrow (McCarey, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
32. Modern Times (Chaplin, Criterion Blu-ray)
33. Mulholland Drive (Lynch, Studio Canal Blu-ray)
34. Night of the Hunter (Laughton, Criterion Blu-ray)
35. Peeping Tom (Powell, Optimum Blu-ray)
36. Profound Desires of the Gods (Imamura, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
37. Red Desert (Antonioni, Criterion Blu-ray)
38. The Red Shoes (Powell/Pressburger, Criterion Blu-ray)
39. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Criterion Blu-ray)
40. Sherlock Jr. / The Three Ages (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)
41. Shutter Island (Scorsese, Paramount Blu-ray)
42. Stagecoach (Ford, Criterion Blu-ray)
43. Steamboat Bill Jr. (Keaton, Kino Blu-ray)
44. The Thin Red Line (Malick, Criterion Blu-ray)
45. Tokyo Story / Brothers and Sisters of the Toda Family (Ozu BFI Blu-ray)
46. Une Femme Mariee (Godard, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
47. Vengeance is Mine (Imamura, Masters of Cinema Blu-ray)
48. Vengeance Trilogy (Park, Palisades Tartan Blu-ray)
49. Vivre sa Vie (Godard, Criterion Blu-ray)
50. The Young Girls of Rochefort (Demy, Arte Video Blu-ray)


Sacre Blu!

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

French Cancan original poster art:

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

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

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

Marcelle Lender on Stage by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec:

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

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

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

The Penitent Magdalen by Georges de la Tour:

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

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

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

A Man Escaped original poster art:


Top 25 Films of the 1950s

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

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

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

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

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

22. Los Olvidados (Bunuel, Mexico, 1950)

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

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

river

20. Ordet (Dreyer, Denmark, 1955)

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

19. Senso (Visconti, Italy, 1954)

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

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

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

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

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

15. Park Row (Fuller, USA, 1952)

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

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

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

13. Floating Clouds (Naruse, Japan, 1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

9. Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, Japan, 1954)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5. Ugetsu (Mizoguchi, Japan, 1953)

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

4. Vertigo (Hitchcock, USA, 1958)

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

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

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

2. Tokyo Story (Ozu, Japan, 1953)

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

1. The Searchers (Ford, USA, 1956)

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


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