Top Ten by Year: 1935

About a month ago I asked followers on Tumblr to submit years in film they’d like to see me make a top ten from. The result was a somewhat addicting process where groups of ten films were semi-haphazardly gathered and posted, mostly for my own amusement/indulgence. It helps that I have a chronological list of every film I’ve seen to conveniently work off of. Then I realized that this would be the perfect project for Cinema Enthusiast! Because as much as I loved posting the top tens on Tumblr, I generally dislike posting lists without taking a relative plunge both in research and posting. Because isn’t that the point? There’s been a lot of discussion about lists within the film-going community over the years questioning their purpose, reductivism, and superficiality. All of those drawbacks are present to be sure. But I’ve been a list-maker my whole life and I view mine as a space for discussion and for personal record; there’s no playing ‘best of’ here. I see lists as a really fun way of representing personal taste as well as charting how that taste changes over time.

The rapid fire boom-boom-boom of the tumblr year posts were satisfying but ultimately brushed off. They were lists as shot-out bursts, circumventing a lot of what I get out of making lists in the first place. First off, a lot of list-making is an excuse to see more films. An opportunity to fine-tune. I don’t like posting lists on this blog without accompanying write-ups because A. that’s half the purpose and B. without them lists arguably maintain their purported problematic nature. All of this is to say that this is a new ongoing project of mine. Preferably, I hope to complete roughly a year per month or so during which I will dive into some first-time viewings, blind spots and re-watches to prep for the year at hand. I plan on concentrating on years that are particularly weak for me as my motivating factor is the excuse to, as I said before, see more films.

So that brings me to my first year; 1935. Out of all the years in the 1930’s, 1935 was my weakest number-wise. Before I started this project I had seen 13 films; now I’ve seen 25. I watched 12 new-to-me films and re-watched 7 of the original 13 I had seen. I never got around to checking out most of the international films I wanted to, so you’ll notice almost everything in this group is from Hollywood.

For each year I’ll have a list of Blind Spots; films from said year that I haven’t seen which I feel are worth mentioning. At the bottom of the post is a list of all the 1935 films I’ve seen so readers will know everything that was considered. Because yeah, there are some biggies that did not make my cut.

Toni (Renoir), An Inn in Tokyo (Yasujiro Ozu), Sylvia Scarlett (Cukor), The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (Hathaway), David Copperfield (Cukor), Carnival in Flanders (Feyder), Crime and Punishment (von Sternberg), A Tale of Two Cities (Conway), Les Miserables (Boleslawski), The Million Ryo Pot (Sadao Yamanaka), Hands Across the Table (Leisen), Dangerous (Green)


10. The Whole Town’s Talking (John Ford, USA)
This, not The Informer, is my 1935 John Ford film of choice. It’s an unsung slice of comedy that fuses Capra with Little Caesar. This is in no large part due to the screenplay by Robert Riskin (co-written by Jo Swerling), who also wrote a great number of Capra classics. In fact, this script was sandwiched between his work on It Happened One Night and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town! This is a must for Edward G. Robinson connoisseurs, myself included. He plays dual roles; the solitary and prompt bank teller Jones and Public Enemy #1 Killer Mannion. He puts inspired and subtle spins on each part with standout moments on both sides. Furthering the Capra connections, this is the film that established Jean Arthur’s archetypal no-nonsense dame. She is so natural here that it feels like the folks at Colombia found her on the street, put her in front of the camera, and told her to react to her surroundings. The film suffers from some tonal dissonance when it shifts to its second half. The first half has a lighter touch where the second seems to give way to the more criminal elements of the story, which by the way becomes quite convoluted by the end. Arthur also disappears at the hour mark, and with her goes a lot of the comedy. But this was such a welcome find and it’s got a killer Edward G. Robinson drunk scene; “Goodbye, slaves!”

Annex - Cagney, James (G Men)_NRFPT_02

9. ‘G’ Men (William Keighley, USA)
‘G’ Men holds a fond place in my heart. It was one of the first films I watched on TCM as a teenager. It was probably the first classic film I watched that wasn’t largely hoisted up as a ‘canon’ work. And it was the film that made me fall for James Cagney. That boundless energy, nimble physicality, those ever-darting eyes. I immediately became smitten and fully engaged with him as a performer. There’s nothing much about ‘G’ Men that stands out as a film, as it lives and dies on Cagney’s presence, but it’s surprisingly fun, easily re-watchable and a perfect vehicle for the star. It takes him away from the hard-edged gangsters of Pre-Code crime and sticks him on the other side while wisely keeping his trademark spunk.  I can’t talk about ‘G’ Men without mentioning an all-time favorite classic actress of mine, a woman who doesn’t get her due today; Ann Dvorak. It’s a supporting part but seeing her and Cagney onscreen together feels oh-so natural and right.


8. The Bride of Frankenstein (James Whale, USA)
Bookended with unforgettable appearances by Elsa Lanchester, first as Mary Shelley and last as the eponymous ‘Bride’, her presence locks in the near-episodic structure and progressive genre-play of The Bride of Frankenstein into place. Because ‘Bride’ is completely mental, let me make that clear. It toys with emphasizing an anything-goes feel, taking everything from the 1931 original and sprinting off with it in another direction. Ernest Thesinger’s delectable performance as Dr. Pretorious makes Colin Clive’s Dr. Frankenstein look like a fairly well-adjusted fellow. This film takes chances. That opening scene. The combination of camp and tragedy. All that Christian imagery. It even dares to use the original as a jumping-off point for humor! ‘Bride’ still never quite comes together for me as a masterpiece the way it has for many, but I enjoy the hell out of it. It’s the individual parts, rather than the sum of said parts, that interest me most. While Thesinger is beyond entertaining as the gleefully psychotic doctor, the aligning camp performance of Una O’Connor plays too much with my wearying tolerance for shrieking meddlesome creatures. I also cannot decide whether or not Karloff gets to speak too much. It’s a loaded and welcome next-level step for the character, but sometimes it feels like an overused addition. Somehow through it all, The Bride of Frankenstein continues to ripen with age as a has-it-all horror film. I mean my God, the sheer insanity of those final ten minutes alone.


7. The Devil is a Woman (Josef von Sternberg, USA)
Speaking of throwing caution to the wind and going full throttle, the final collaboration between Josef von Sternbrg and Marlene Dietrich is a logical endpoint for what was a brilliant pairing of unmatched mutual self-indulgence. I saw this for the first time last year and liked it, though I found its static repetition a mite exhausting. Lionel Atwill falls for Dietrich’s Concha Perez. She fucks him over. Wash, rinse, repeat. But what I was able to have a lot more fun with, and appreciation for, this time around is the way von Sternberg/Dietrich knowingly play with said structure, pushing it to such a well-calculated extreme that it occupies its own wink-wink space amongst other films of its kind. You ask yourself ‘how can Atwill not see that she is using him, that she feels nothing for him?’ That’s precisely the point; Atwill, and the other men that get sucked into Dietrich’s path, are fully exposed as fools. Other films with scheming females contain performances that straddle ambiguity, or at least have women who convince the audience as well as the male characters. At the very least, we can usually fathom how the men get wrapped into doing anything by these screen goddesses. And Dietrich is certainly a goddess, but her performance is so knowingly transparent, her Concha so hilariously uncaring and uncommitted (her eyes are incapable of resting on anything for a second), that the film becomes an experiment in exposing the artificiality of all players involved in plots of obsession and desire.

The Devil is a Woman also has a pretty uncommon-for-its-time flashback structure where straight cuts are used to travel between past and present. There’s also lot of room for interpretation within the transparency; for me, Dietrich feels more authentically involved in the Cesar Romero character, but then there’s her decision in the final scene. And Atwill’s Don Pasqual sure does feel like the most blatant Von Sternberg surrogate of them all. There’s lots to think about. The director also gets to indulge in the kinds of celebratory chaotic carnival settings that so fascinate him, where every frame revels in the clutter and the overcrowded. Josef von Sternberg and Marlene Dietrich are one of my favorite director/actor collaborations, and this last film of theirs is a caustic and cold film, a logical collaborative conclusion of absurdity and all-in creative stakes.


6. The Good Fairy (William Wyler, USA)
Certain films carry with them a magical thrill, the thrill of long-existing but new-found discovery. I can’t quite say I felt this about all of The Good Fairy, but I certainly had this feeling more often than not.

This is a fractured fairy tale of sorts, built around the well-meaning naivete of an orphanage-bred young woman. Margaret Sullavan is ethereally soft and sensual, newly sprung but bursting with life. Her romance with Herbert Marshall doesn’t come until late in the story, and it’s one of the most wonderful sections of any film I’ve seen in ages. Both players are unconventional romancers in their way; their interaction, which starts with the sexually suggestive and impossibly enthusiastic testing of a pencil sharpener, is impossible not to get lost in. The screenplay (an adaptation of a 1930 play) by Preston Sturges ensures that laughs come in the most unexpected and jovial of places with underlying purpose laid beneath. The film-within-a-film, played for parodic laughs, doubles as an insight into the childishness of Luisa’s worldview. Its drawbacks, mainly an unreachable aloofness and Sullavan’s do-gooder sainthood, cannot stamp out the immediate connection and unchecked joy I felt during much of The Good Fairy. It’s a glorious film that uses its outlandish screwball story for spontaneous charm and refreshing energy all around.


5. Peter Ibbetson (Henry Hathaway, USA) 
I normally don’t go in for metaphysical love or anything resembling those kinds of sentimental ideas on film. Or really anywhere for that matter. But Peter Ibbetson is so relentlessly ethereal, so distinct within its era in Hollywood filmmaking that it had me swooning from the first. I felt a rare level of investment in the couple in question played by Gary Cooper and Ann Harding, largely in thanks to a tear-inducing first act depicting the pair’s inseparable connection as children. This is a vastly underrated film that I implore you to see if you ever get the chance. The final act loses itself a bit but the fact that it even dares to depict two people who live out their time with each other in a mutually shared dream space is commendable. Did I mention Peter Ibbetson is also gorgeous? Heavenly shafts of light are often used to connect our characters through the magic of film.

Marx Brothers (A Night at the Opera)_02

4. A Night at the Opera (Wood, USA)
The Marx Brothers at MGM was a prospect that could have potentially washed out and overwhelmed the defining anarchic sensibilities of their well-established schtick. At first glance their zippy whiplash doesn’t match up with the glossy spectacle of the studio, and there are certainly times during A Night at the Opera where those concerns are in danger of becoming realities. But the Marx Brothers stay loyal to themselves in an upscale setting, justifying A Night at the Opera as the classic it is. This was the most rewarding re-watch of the bunch for me. I first saw it a good ten years ago and was admittedly disappointed by it. Apparently I thought the Marx Brothers material was hilarious, but was troubled by the way they revolved around a plot about bland opera singers. This time around, the opera singers aren’t nearly as disruptive as I remember. I also understand enough to now know that these kinds of subplots are par for the course. That intermission-like musical set-piece outstays its welcome (I could have done without the musical number before heading into Harpo and Chico’s respective joyful solo bits) and the big-scale of the end does indeed threaten to swallow them whole. A Night at the Opera is endlessly watchable and contains some of their best bits, including a musical beds sequence that deserves to be on the same level of fame as the iconic Stateroom scene.


3. Ruggles of Red Gap (Leo McCarey, USA)
A beautifully wry, moving, and patriotic cross-cultural comedy that wears its gentle earnestness on its sleeve even as it pokes fun at the very thing it promotes. What surprised me about Ruggles of Red Gap is the way in which the changes within Ruggles sneak up on both him and us. It’s so subtle and so genuinely affecting almost 80 years later. It is about the realization of opportunity and potential within oneself. It all shines through a remarkable performance by Charles Laughton in his first onscreen comedic role. One of my favorite performers, he was an actor known for playing in extremes. This is a deceptively subtle performance; indeed, extreme in its very subtlety. And this in the same year he played Captain Bligh! It’s a consistently surprising bit of acting too; the mileage you can get out of interpreting and dissecting his tics are considerable. This is also an uproariously funny film. Ruggles has everything, including a divine everyone-stops-in-their-tracks reading of the Gettysburg Address and an uplifting ending that demands the use of a hankie. This is a new favorite and though it’s relatively well-known amongst film buffs, this really should be a household title, as well known as the most iconic of films from the 1930’s.


2. Mad Love (Freund, USA)
Fantastic as The Bride of Frankenstein is, this truly perverse gem is my 1935 horror of choice. There are few actors I love more than Peter Lorre (Laughton may be one of those few; yeah I’ve got a thing for the weird ones). And there are few film folk more underrated than the great cinematographer/director Karl Freund. Put the two together for an adaptation of “The Hands of Orlac” and you have not just one of my favorite horror films, but one of my favorite films period. Also notable as Peter Lorre’s Hollywood debut, Mad Love is one of the most elegantly demented films ever made, mounting its warped sadism in explicitly frank terms. We start out at the “Théâtre des Horreurs” in Paris where we quickly learn that accomplished surgeon Dr. Gogol (Lorre) never misses seeing (or an opportunity to creepily send lots of flowers) actress Yvonne Orlac (Frances Drake), whose nightly performance seems to consist of being violently tortured. And it just gets more nightmarish and operatic from there.

Peter Lorre is priceless as Dr. Gogol, unmatched in his level of bulgy-eyed egghead menace. His work here is unsettling, exposed, and profoundly skeevy. An early scene where he involuntarily finagles a kiss out of Drake is deeply uncomfortable, a comparably chaste scene by today’s standards that manages to feel like a much larger transgression. Freund, and fellow legend of cinematography Gregg Toland, litter this film with stylistic flourish, where every torrid emotion of Gogol’s feels almost too up-close-and-personal within its over-the-top construction.

Mad Love contains indelible images in horror cinema, most prominently that unforgettable disguise Lorre uses to mess with Colin Clive. I cannot stress enough Lorre’s disguise is one of the most frightening things you will ever see. Scariest of all is the moment when Drake, hiding in Gogol’s home, sees him bounding up the stairs in his disguise with unchecked mania and a harnessing get-up that makes his relentless cackle all the more spine-chilling. I’ve seen Mad Love on multiple occasions and that moment, that realization that Gogol has returned home with her still in the house, gets me Every. Single. Time.

39 steps

1. The 39 Steps (Hitchcock, UK)
I can never seem to settle on a favorite Hitchcock film, but there are days when I’d give that distinction to The 39 Steps, in many ways the quintessential film from the Master of Suspense. ‘Steps’ has it all; mistaken identity, dapper leading man, icy blonde, chase sequences, MacGuffin, and sexual innuendo and interplay through latent kinkiness and suggestive visuals. Perhaps what I love most about this film is how episodic it is with its precise structure. The segment with the farmer couple is a particular stand-out (a scene that is sort of a blueprint for using basic editing skills to maximum effect) . As is Donat’s impromptu speech. Or anything with Donat/Carroll. And so it goes. That apex-to-apex consistency is a rarity. Robert Donat is defiantly attractive here; flippant, amused, perfect. The dynamic between Donat and Carroll (though not one of my favorite Hitch women) may be my favorite Hitchcock romance; its remarkably sexy stuff.

It has been stated that Hitchcock films exist on the ‘borders of the possible’ and this film pushes that to its escapist limits as well as maintaining a light-heartedness. Its Scotland setting is an artificial space of pastoral fog, lots of sheep, grassy hills, and waterfalls, evoking a memorably fantastical sense of place. Starting and ending with the mysterious and fateful Mr. Memory, Hitchcock uses this adaptation to set up a world where plot is just a means to an end, an excuse for intrigue and adventure to rule the day.

Full List of 1935 Films Seen:
The 39 Steps, Alice Adams, Anna Karenina, The Black Room, Bride of Frankenstein, Captain Blood, The Devil is a Woman, ‘G’ Men, The Ghost Goes West, The Gold Diggers of 1935, The Good Fairy, The Informer, Mad Love, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Mutiny on the Bounty, A Night at the Opera, Peter Ibbetson, The Raven, Roberta, Ruggles of Red Gap, She, Symphony in Black, Top Hat, Triumph of the Will, The Whole Town’s Talking 

Films Seen in 2013 Round-up: #153-163


#153. The Ghost Goes West (1935, Clair)
A gentle fantastical comedy with satiric lacing in which Americans crassly gobble up cultural identity for their own amusement. Donat plays both the Scottish ghost doomed to an eternity of castle entrapment for dying a cowards death, and his down-on-his-luck descendant. This is Rene Clair’s first film outside of France, and it’s a slight but moderately enjoyable feature with some nice moments. You feel the tethered bond between the ghost and the castle, a bond set forth through Murdoch’s inability to focus on fierce Scottish clan loyalty because he’s too busy with the ladies. Speaking of ladies, Jean Parker is cute if lacking oomph as the female lead.

The film never quite comes together the way it wants to, with half-formed conflicts and a spotty focus that hinders emotional response. Donat is delightful as always.


#154. The Good Fairy (1935, Wyler)
Certain Hollywood films have a singular ability to instill a magical thrill, the thrill of long-existing but new-found discovery. I can’t quite say I felt this about all of The Good Fairy, but I certainly had this feeling during large chunks of it, unreachable aloofness and do-gooder sainthood aside.

A fractured fairy tale of sorts, built around the well-meaning naivete of an orphanage-bred young woman, The Good Fairy gets away with being a wistful but surprisingly lecherous romantic comedy by lifting the raunchy material to the clouds, overlaying what’s implicit with the innocent mindset of its protagonist. Margaret Sullavan is ethereally soft and sensual, newly sprung but bursting with life. Her romance with Herbert Marshall doesn’t come until late in the story and its one of the most wonderful sections of any film I’ve seen in ages. Both players are unconventional romancers in their way; their interaction, which starts with the sexually suggestive and impossibly enthusiastic testing of a pencil sharpener, is impossible not to get lost in.

The devil is in the details here and the screenplay (an adaptation of a 1930 play) by Preston Sturges ensures that laughs come in the most unexpected and jovial of places with underlying purpose laid beneath. The film-within-a-film, played for parodic laughs, doubles as an insight into the childishness of Luisa’s worldview.

The Good Fairy ceases to work when it loses itself in the shuffle of redundant interplay or when it is unable to distinguish Luisa’s outlook from its own presentation. Frank Morgan, a character actor I usually love, gets to be too much when he threatens to take over the film with his reach-around stuttering through dialogue that refuses to move forward. He pulls a bit of a Charles Ruggles. The screenplay also becomes a problem in this regard. The scenes with Luisa and Konrad show two characters operating on different wavelengths. When they are onscreen together it is either magically entertaining in how far away it gets from anything resembling logic, or frustratingly static.
And as much as I love Luisa and Dr. Sporum, it is upsetting to see plain old marriage be the endpoint for a character who just left the orphanage for the first time, with a whole world out there for her to discover.

These things detract from the experience but do not stamp out the immediate connection and the unchecked joy I felt during much of The Good Fairy. It’s a glorious film that uses its outlandish screwball story for spontaneous charm and refreshing energy all around.

#155. Mud (2013, Nichols) 

#156. Passion (2013, De Palma)
When you get to the point in a prolific director’s career where he starts referencing himself, you know you are in for a good time. The reception for this film is been predictably divisive, the De Palma apologists vs. the rest. I for one enjoyed the hell out of Passion. It may be missing the titular emotion, but the way it constantly veers between satirical and fetishistic tendencies means there is always something interesting up on the screen.

It’s a remake of Love Crime, Alain Corneau’s final film, which I happen to be quite keen on. Passion is about what we see and the inherent distrust that goes along with it. De Palma says that Godard’s famous “film is truth at 24 frames a second” is nonsense and, well, frankly it is. It’s romanticized to the max. Here, he has the unreliability of the camera and the ever-watchful eye of new technologies playing ping-pong with each other, resulting in a film that feels pristine and hollow in an effective way.

Where Love Crime spends the final half meticulously deconstructing itself to the point of banality, De Palma veers into outlandish rabbit holes, letting his freak flag fly. De Palma generally seems to view women as otherworldly things, either to be worshiped, exposed or exploited. Here, he is fascinated with exploring what he would imagine to be the way competitive women in a heightened corporate world might power play each other. This specimen-like way of writing his characters means there is a distance with which we view everything. Isabelle and Cristine feel somewhat robotic, borne out of the playful masculine mind, and are defined very narrowly by their working relationship. That distance both hinders and helps, and it makes for a film that fetishizes them somehow un-erotically. We can see the surface of eroticism in the focus on material things, but Passion is interested the way glossy surface gives way to the unknowable world of complex mind-games between women. There’s a Louis C.K quote that of course has the kind of generalization necessary for stand-up, but it’s funny because it contains a kernel of truth: “A man will rip off your arm and throw it in the river, but he will leave you as a human being intact. He won’t mess with who you are. Women are non-violent but they will shit inside your heart”. Even though he generalizes, is talking about a straight man’s relationship with other men and women, and taking into account that ‘non-violent’ is not relevant to Passion, it’s funny because there is truth there. And so Passion has a man trying to imagine this other world where two highly competitive, highly intelligent, cutthroat women go head-to-head in corporate Berlin. His imagined vision is absurd yet truthful, unreachable but highly entertaining in its mystique.

A.O Scott says in his review: “Passion is a swirl of bright color and arresting compositions, many of them involving red lipstick, high-heeled shoes, fancy lingerie, expensive Champagne and other venerable tenets of the Playboy Philosophy. Which is not to accuse the film of old-fashioned sexism, exactly. Its misogyny is the kind that can plausibly masquerade as feminism, and Passion is interesting precisely insofar as it succeeds in scrambling the distinction.” This sums up how I felt about a lot of Passion.

But most of all Passion is funny and don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t on some level supposed to be. There is a satirical edge to the corporate world portrayed and I was highly entertained by the color pops, the transparent bubble of the offices, the self-satisfaction of the ad campaigns, the over-the-top tone and De Palma’s stylistic tricks of the trade which give the film a delightfully strange unreachable tone. Passion is a strange beast, wildly uneven and slippery to grasp, deliriously hollow yet potent.

For my comparative look at Passion and Love Crime


#157. Anna Karenina (1935, Brown)
Greta Garbo is almost too perfectly cast as Anna, the result feeling obvious and predictable instead of iconic. Then again, I find I have a difficult time fully engaging with Garbo as a presence outside of her work in silent films. Even so, between the forever-miscast Vronsky and the fact that there is no feeling of relentless passion to take our lovers to their doom, we are left with an adaptation that stuffily if dutifully goes by the numbers. Only the first five minutes and the infamous train leap step into a place of genuinely felt storytelling. Everything else, and that particularly includes the grating Freddie Batholomew, I can live without.


#158. Peter Ibbetson (1935, Hathaway)
I normally don’t go in for metaphysical love or anything resembling these sentimental ideas in film. But Peter Ibbetson is so relentlessly ethereal, so unique within its era in filmmaking that I was swooning from the first. It helps immensely that I felt wholly invested in Gary Cooper and Ann Harding thanks to a tear-inducing first act depicting the pair’s inseparable connection as children. This is vastly underrated film that I’d like to write about more someday. I implore you to see it if you ever get a chance. The final act loses itself a bit but the fact that it even dares to depict two people who live out their time with each other in a mutually shared dream space is commendable. Did I mention Peter Ibbetson is also gorgeous to look at?


#159. The East (2013, Batmanglij)
Brit Marling is rising artistically with each passing effort even though I still find her a stilted and largely ineffective presence onscreen. Like Sound of My VoiceThe East puts a fresh spin on the familiarity of an undercover story, this time by setting it within an Eco-terrorist unit. This and the pared down micro-scale show Marling and Batmanglij’s preoccupation with taking genre and scaling it back while staying true to broader convention. It’s a formidable mix and it could have equally added up to a recyclable film, but there is enough going for The East to make it more than worth watching, from the writers’ eye for ritualistic detail to a problematic but intriguing loyalty the extremist characters. The structure rises and falls in quality, taking a while to thrust out an identity and then maxing out on itself in the last third. It also has a difficult time marrying thriller conventions and a preoccupation with depicting the Freegan lifestyle. All in all The East is a step in the right direction as Marling comes closer to constructing a story that succeeds in its entirety rather than nailing down the disparate parts.

Alexander Skarsgård is ridiculously convincing as a cult leader who you would follow to the ends of the Earth in a millisecond flat.


#160. The Informer (1935, Ford)
This is John Ford doing German Expressionism on a budget. It’s a simple story of Irish guilt and redemption using the visual mechanisms of silent storytelling. The fog-covered Dublin sets feeling like some kind of existential hell. It’s compelling in spots but also exhausting and not in the best way. You are essentially watching Victor McLaglen drown for ninety minutes and it is clear from the word ‘go’ that his lumbering oafish self doesn’t have a chance. Watching him self-destruct feels alternately raw and monotonous. It hasn’t aged too well but I will say that there’s nothing else like it and is unique amongst other films of its time.


#161. Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935, Berkeley)
The put-on-a-show Berkeley musicals of the 30s invariably lose something when most of the core Warner Brothers regulars are absent. When you’re left only with Dick Powell and (reliable but let’s face it, they aren’t Guy Kibbee) character actors like Hugh Herbert and Glenda Farrell there’s only so much to be done. The weak script really brings this film down. It’s understood that the story is ultimately a means to an end here but usually there’s a verve and a spice to the writing and the way it’s performed, that allows them to get away with barely justifying plot developments and romances. In Gold Diggers of 1935 there’s nothing to care about when it comes to story or character. Alice Brady is used too heavily and Gloria Stuart is not engaging as the female lead. This is Busby Berkeley’s first solo directorial effort and it’s interesting to see the way he incorporates his style from start to finish. But he also introduces the setting in a musical fashion that misleads the nature of the musical he creates. It’s jarring and doesn’t come off. The numbers are spectacular with synchronous pianos and the chaotic consequences of the bacchanal lifestyle. It’s a blessing when Wini Shaw saves the day with her sultry head in a sea of black. That incomparable first shot of the “Lullaby of Broadway” number makes it even harder to process the fact that what surrounds this number (which pushes the structure of a Berkeley number even further from stage to cinematic space to cinematic headspace to cinematic space to stage) is inescapably dull.


#162. Beau Travail (1999, Denis)
Claire Denis has a way of stripping down narrative, boiling it down to its bare essentials, to fragments of memory with almost no dialogue. Here you have the male body, repetition and ritual, repression, colonialism, the starkness of blue sky and ragged stone. The film feels ethnographic but not of the people of Djibouti; of the soldiers. It’s a film that hypnotizes, contemplating its tale in ways that are fresh and challenging. And who better to represent the primal than Denis Lavant? The coda is as good as cinema gets and it might be my favorite end to any film.

More coming soon


163. Roberta (1935, Seiter)
When you have Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in your arsenal but instead decide to focus on Irene Dunne and an idiotic non-entity of a football player trying to run a fashion empire, you have taken a major misstep. And that’s what Roberta is. The Astaire/Rogers numbers are fabulous, just fabulous, but there’s only a handful of them. The rest of the film, which is the bulk, is a story so bland I almost shut the film off (something I never do). It isn’t even that Randolph Scott is boring to watch; his character is ham-fisted to the point of active annoyance. Rogers and Astaire are onscreen a lot but often as bystanders; this is criminal.

One highlight is Lucille Ball as a model during the climactic fashion show. She is an extra with no dialogue, simply modeling the gown to get her fifteen seconds of screentime. This is two years before Stage Door; she is blonde and disgustingly gorgeous.

Potential Double Feature #3: Love Crime (2011) & Passion (2013)

Originally posted September 12th on Vérité as part of their Double Feature column:

Film still from Love Crime

In an industry overflowing with repackaged sacred cows, Brian De Palma’s latest film Passion, from Alain Corneau’s final film Love Crime, is that rare remake that doesn’t exist solely to make buckets of cash off brand recognition. An artistic re-imagining where the filmmaker is the brand, Passion makes us wonder why directors insist on reinterpreting acclaimed masterworks, instead of taking a crack at films with the potential for improvement? Looking at the two films comparatively, it comes as no surprise that the cannibalistic De Palma would renovate the brass tacks of Love Crime into a smorgasbord of baroque self-referencing.

In 2010’s Love Crime, Isabelle (Ludivine Sagnier) is an up-and-coming executive with a borderline obsessive bent. She assists the ruthlessly cold Christine (Kristin Scott Thomas), who plays mentor and friend to Isabelle as a means to an end. The two become locked in competitive mind-games and manipulation, and after one humiliation too many, Isabelle sets out to execute an elaborately perfect crime.

Passion largely follows the same pattern, replicating an in-sync scene-for-scene and line-for-line structure in its first half, but immediate differences belie the entirely lifted duplications. Where Love Crime takes place within an agro-industry, Passion spices things up by being set in the materialistic dog-eat-dog advertising world. The first shot features the Apple logo as Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) and Christine (Rachel McAdams) brainstorm for an upcoming deadline. De Palma places his characters within a webbed bubble of all-seeing modern technology, dispelling the notion of privacy. The voyeuristic camera has crossed over into the hands and power of everyone. Skype, iPhones, security cameras, etc. all play a major role, and lend a newly added focus.



Rachel McAdams as Christine is jarring at first, considerably shifting the nature of the central dynamic. Love Crime’s Isabelle looks up to the considerably older Christine as a mentor. Their bond is one of maternal eroticism, Isabelle desperately clinging onto the hopeful approval of a parental figure whose doting ways can turn into abuse in seconds flat. Coworkers briefly mention that Christine’s last assistant resides in a mental hospital. Isabelle is just one in a long line of young disposable fodder for the succubus sitting comfortably at the top of the executive chain.

McAdams’ Christine is secure in her capabilities, but doesn’t comfortably sit at the top of the pack and there is a wavering tenuousness to her position. Isabelle feels like more of an immediate threat. Everybody is replaceable and it cuts both ways. The even playing field turns maternal longing into a quest for possession where eroticism doesn’t feel genuine but is simply another tool at hand.

Noomi Rapace heavily clouds our perception of Isabelle. With Ludivine Sagnier, we understand and readily empathize with Isabelle; she makes a connection with the audience even when we don’t know the reasoning behind her actions. Rapace is unreadable and distant, a trait with which the actor often struggles. It oddly works here though, if only because of the ambiguous direction De Palma takes the story.


Brian De Palma is known as a stylist of outlandish proportions, a painter of Grand Guignol canvases with fluid camera movement. Love Crime is dressed down by Corneau with efficient shots, muted colors, and sparse music. Passion is all florid artificiality, from McAdams’ fashionista wardrobe of pop colors to the expressionistic lighting and increasingly canted angles. He transforms a simple alibi-establishing scene in Love Crime into a trademark split-screen set-piece of ballet intertwined with murder.

In Love Crime, we are immediately and explicitly let in on the fact that Isabelle murdered Christine. The question is never what has happened but how it has happened. We see her painstakingly setting the pieces in place without context. After the murder, we spend the final fifty minutes dissecting how she gets away with it. The piece-by-piece puzzle-building starts intriguingly but loses steam to a host of self-satisfied narrative pay-offs.

De Palma simplifies the incriminating details, pouring energy into subliminal rabbit holes, letting his freak flag fly. Narratively the audience is kept out of the loop, additionally manipulated by playful fake-outs depicting Isabelle’s warped perspective and frayed sanity. The techie focus is tied into the overall fabric, overtly questioning our trust in everything we see in a time when transparency is a weakness. It makes Passion feel effectively pristine and hollow. The focus is not on the ‘how’ but on the ‘what’. What is happening? What has happened? De Palma even throws in a questionable twin sister for good measure. While Kristin Scott Thomas’ absence is felt, the lingering doppelganger makes it feel like McAdams is lurking behind a corner waiting to pounce.



For a film titled Passion, Isabelle and Christine feel robotically stilted and out-of-reach. These women are borne out of the playful masculine mind. The surface of eroticism focuses on material things, and the glossy gives way to the supposedly unknowable minds of women. De Palma fetishizes them, erasing any individuality they held claim to in Love Crime. They become beautiful trussed-up dolls playing at corporate slaughter for the filmmaker’s amusement. Notably, De Palma changes Isabelle’s confidant Daniel into a woman named Dani, becoming the third part of a female trifecta, though  he also gives his women more control and independence, making a pawn out of Christine’s boyfriend Phillipe. He is a cause of Isabelle’s emotional turmoil, not the source.

In Corneau’s film, Isabelle’s affair with Phillipe is her true weakness, something Christine capitalizes on with relish. In a revealing conversation with her sister, not present in Passion, it is clear that Isabelle’s vulnerability is centered on her emotional investment in another man. In Passion, Isabelle’s reactions feel more connected to Christine specifically, with Phillipe merely a part of the whole.

Love Crime is single-mindedly serious in tone, with a clinical approach to its second half. What Passion lacks in genuine emotion or characterization is largely made up for with bawdy sensibility in every grandiose gesture. There’s a satirical edge to the portrayal of corporatism, and De Palma’s stamp creates an amorphous  tone. It’s a wildly uneven film; slippery to grasp, deliriously hollow yet potent. Love Crime is a satisfying thriller that eventually gets too caught up with the narrative tricks up its sleeve. Corneau wants to make sure you see how everything fits. De Palma wants to gleefully revel in an unaccountable head-space. The constant push-pull in the creative decisions of Passion makes it a far messier film than Love Crime, which in this case makes for a more stimulating experience.

List: Top 30 Most Anticipated Fall Films (Sept-Dec 2013)

It’s that time of year again! Prestige season when awards-bait fodder gets tossed out to the masses and where festival films are chewed up by critics with non-festival goers frothing at the mouth for hyperbolic tweets and reviews. The time of year when the hype-bar soars and awards-talk becomes the primary context for discussion. With each passing year I learn more and more the difference between letting anticipation get to me and letting hype get to me. They are two very different things. One of them healthy, the other dangerous, unfair and problematic.

Many sites gear towards a more collective gathering of films to look forward to, but an advantage of having an individual blog is that my to-see lists are always filtered through what I am most looking forward to. So while you’ll see a ton of stuff on here that is on everyone’s list, there’s a lot of stuff that you will note is missing. Oldboy, Carrie, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Saving Mr. Banks, Thor: The Dark World, August: Osage County, Ender’s Game, The Book Thief, About Time, Captain Phillips, The Fifth Estate, Rush, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Philomena, The Invisible Woman, Out of the Furnace and many more are not on this list . Many of those I’d like to see, but my interest ranges from indifferent to it-just-didn’t-make-the-cut. The complete list of films that did not make the cut but are on my eventual to-see list are at the bottom.

Obviously there will be changes in the release schedule these upcoming months with new dates added and new curiosities emerging. I’ll be sure to make additions when necessary. Also, this time of year doesn’t have a ton of international releases to choose from so forgive how US-centric this is.

What Fall films are you anticipating?

30. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (Lawrence)
Release Date: November 2

I wasn’t the biggest fan of The Hunger Games adaptation, but there was certainly a lot to admire there and I’m hoping for the best with its sequel. At the very least, Jennifer Lawrence makes for a compelling Katniss, giving a performance that far eclipsed her Oscar-winning work last year. I enjoy the books but the additions of Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amanda Plummer are a real clincher.

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29. Dallas Buyers Club (Vallée)
Release Date: November 1

This seems to follow a familiar trajectory but look at that the attention-demanding McConaughey transformation, an acting gimmick that is almost always backed up by worthy emotive work. I’ve been a huge follower of The Second Coming of McConaughey, and from a look-at-me-I’m-acting perspective this project feels like an apex of sorts for him. The AIDS epidemic and the search for alternative treatments is something is a historical topic I’m always extremely interested in, not to mention Jared Leto in drag, so I can’t wait to see how said issue is addressed within the biopic formula.

28. All is Lost (Chandor)

Release Date: October 18th

J.C Chandor’s ambitious second film after the mostly engaging Margin Call comes to us overflowing with festival raves. A one-man show for Robert Redford, and only the first person-in-isolated-peril film on this list, I’m very much looking forward to an existential man-against-the-elements story.

27. A Teacher (Fidell)
Release Date: September 6th

Reactions to Hannah Fidell’s debut feature have been all over the map, but I’m always up for seeing the psychological process of a conflicting crisis and the havoc it wreaks on a woman’s mind and life. This is definitely a film I’ll be checking out.

26. Informant (Meltzer)
Release Date: September 13

A documentary about Brandon Darby that I’ve been hearing a lot of positive talk about. Most often, the reasons I want to see a film are very simple!
25. Plush (Hardwicke)
Release Date: September 13

Female-directed erotic thriller about a rock star possibly losing her mind complete with kink? I feel like this was made for me. This could very well end up being awful but this is right up my alley, as Catherine Hardwicke continues attempting to shed her Twilight-skin and Emily Browning continues down her trek through provocation.

24. The Armstrong Lie (Gibney)
Release Date: November 8th

I didn’t follow the Lance Armstrong controversy closely but I’m incredibly drawn to the idea of a documentary about him directed by none other than Alex Gibney. The fact that this was initially shelved and then re-opened following the shitstorm makes this even more compelling.
23. Harry Dean Stanton: Partly Fiction (Huber)
Release Date: September 13th

An anecdotal documentary about Harry Dean Stanton featuring every cool person to ever exist, not least of which; Harry Dean Stanton! Need I say more?

22. Anchorman: The Legend Continues (McKay)
Release Date: December 20th

Anchorman is one of the few recent mainstream comedies I love, without a doubt one of my favorites of all-time. I’m hesitant about a sequel but so damn hopeful at the same time. Between the talent involved, and the characters they are working with, there’s a lot of potential.

21. The Monuments Men (Clooney)
Release Date: December 18th

OK, so the trailer makes it look like WWII Ocean’s Eleven. But it’s about preserving art, culture and history. It’s about archives for God’s sake! It doesn’t get better than that. I wasn’t a fan of Clooney’s last film, but he’s working with inherently excellent material, a true story and a highly acclaimed non-fiction book. I for one am really interested to see how he and his collaborators transform this story into a resonant and accessible narrative.

A Touch of Sin film still
20. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)
Release Date: September 28th

Confession: I’ve still never seen a Jia Zhangke film. I realize this needs to change soon. He’s long been on my list of Directors I Should Be Familiar with. But I’m at least smart enough to know that any time he makes a film, it’s a cue for my eyes and ears to perk up. And so here you are.

19. The Counselor (Scott)
Release Date: October 25

This is Cormac McCarthy’s first jab at screenwriting so I’m dying to know how this turns out. The trailer also left me particularly lured in by the Cameron Diaz character. It looks like she’s got a juicy part here, claws out and all.

18. Labor Day (Reitman)
Release Date: December 25th (limited)

Based on a Joyce Maynard novel, Labor Day sounds like a chamber piece full of bottled-up emotion and conflict. Reitman’s last film happens to be my favorite of 2011. So though Diablo Cody was a huge part of that, it’s still a contributing factor and Reitman is nothing if not reliable.

17. American Hustle (Russell)
Release Date: December 25

Lots of scandal, crime, bad hair and sleaze await, brought to us by an all-star cast (most excited about Louis C.K popping up obviously) and a director coming off of a massive hit. It’s also notably a script from the Black List. What I’m the most intrigued about here is tone. David O. Russell is a master of tone when he’s on his game/servicing material in need of a perfect balance. The crime movies I’m anticipating this fall are hopefully going to spice things up and not play it straight.

The Past by Asghar Farhadi 1--621x414
16. The Past (Farhadi)
Release Date: December 20th

Asghar Farhadi’s follow-up to A Separation. That’s all that needs to be said. I’ve been waiting for this one a long while. Can we also just appreciate the sickening beauty of Tahar Rahim?

15. We Are What We Are (Mickle)
Release Date: September 27

A remake of a much-talked about Mexican film from 2010, which I still haven’t gotten around to seeing. The trailer for this looks evocative and haunting. Artsy horror is a of automatic interest to me, it’s had positive word-of-mouth, and it looks beautiful besides.

14. A Single Shot (Rosenthal)
Release Date: September 20th

Anything starring Sam Rockwell is clearly going to be both on my to-see list and worth watching regardless. But this is also the kind of Southern Gothic crime story that I naturally drift towards. Haggard and atmospheric.

13. Wadjda (Haifaa Al-Mansour)
Release Date: September 13 (limited)

The first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and the first feature length film made by a Saudi female, this is a monumentally important milestone. All I’ve been hearing are wonderful things about Wadjda. That it’s got distribution here where many will be able to see it is a big big deal.

12. The Wolf of Wall Street (Scorsese)
Release Date: November 15th

Much like American Hustle, what interests me with Scorsese’s latest, a 180 away from Hugo, is the question of tone. The balls-out trailer drowning in reckless extravaganza is hopefully a hint of what is to come. I’m not interested in this story if it’s played even remotely straight. I want absurdity and abandon. I don’t want something that dares to ask me to give a fuck about any of these people. Based on the trailer, It looks very promising. Let’s hope the completed product can deliver more of the same.

Isaiah Washington, Tequan Richmond In 'Blue Caprice' 2013

11. Blue Caprice (Moors)
Release Date: September 13th (limited)

Inspired by the Beltway sniper attacks, the trailer for this intrigued me immediately with its chilling atmosphere, so much so that it shot up to the top portion of my to-see list. I seriously cannot wait for this.

10. Kill Your Darlings (Krokias)
Release Date: October 16

Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg. Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr. Jack Huston as Jack Kerouac. Ben Foster as William Burroughs. Michael C. Hall as David Kammerer. Stop me when you’ve heard enough. I’ve been waiting for this film a very long time and it’s been in the conceptual works since 2009. I’m hearing solid, if not revelatory rumblings, and that’s more than enough for me. I cannot wait to see how they interpret this true story of a murder early in the lives of these unconscionably influential individuals. I’m also a huge supporter of Daniel Radcliffe and his post-Potter career and I don’t think there’s anything I’m anticipating more than seeing him have sexual chemistry with DeHaan and Huston. Dane DeHaan has become one of my favorite young actors, so any chance I get to see him is exciting. There’s just so many pretty people in this movie. But seriously; this is my favorite ensemble cast of the fall.

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9. Prisoners (Villeneuve)
Release Date: September 20th

This was on my radar once Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) became attached. Then the trailer and advance buzz really got me revved. It looks brutal and searing; a horrific and impossible situation that just gets worse and worse. This looks like exactly the kind of film we need more of in mainstream US film. Murky, immersive, and genuinely emotionally challenging whilst maintaining a director’s touch. I’m also always rooting for Hugh Jackman to do projects that show how talented he is, and this looks like it will be the perfect chance for that. Lastly; Roger Fucking Deakins.

www.indiewire.com8. Bastards (Denis)
Release Date: October 25th It’s new Claire Denis, which is not only reason for celebration but gets this an automatic place in the top 10.

7. Enough Said (Holofcener)
Release Date: September 18th

A collaboration between Nicole Holofcener and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss is a collaboration I didn’t even realize I wanted, but the second I heard about it my heart leapt. Louis-Dreyfuss rarely gets to dip her toes in film, let alone to star in one, and she’s one of the greatest people working in comedy. By the way, if you aren’t watching Veep, you’re time is not being utilized well.  But new Holofcener is a great thing in and of itself; Please Give is one of the most underrated films I’ve seen in recent years. And it goes without saying that we are all looking forward to the bittersweet experience of seeing James Gandolfini in one of his final roles.

6. Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen Brothers)
Release Date:  December 20th

It’s been three years since True Grit and yet somehow it feels like it’s been even longer. What has interested me perhaps the most about this film is something either Joel or Ethan said about Inside Llewyn Davis being about failure and the idea of exploring a character who is present during a monumental time in music but not quite able to make his mark. I love the idea of a film being about coming to terms with this or at the very least addressing it, and the trailer indicates a somber poignancy amidst the bleak humor that looks wondrous. And this also notably has Oscar Isaac gets his completely deserving breakout role in film. Finally.

5. 12 Years a Slave (McQueen)
Release Date: October 18th (limited)

The festival raves for this highly anticipated project have been through the roof. Steve McQueen, one of the most praised and respected  young directors working today has tackled the challenge of bringing an actual slave narrative to the screen. And by all accounts this looks like a vital film, appropriately brutal and full of nightmarish survival. It looks it has the potential to stand as an example of what film can do and luckily this is prepped to be seen by many.
4. Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche)
Release Date: October 25

It’s been a long time since I’ve been so conflicted about my interest in a film. On the one hand, I’m dying to see it; its acclaim has been unstoppable and overwhelming and it even won the Palme D’Or, usually a guarantee for me. Plus, it’s up my alley, full-stop.

I try to put aside any personal scandal/controversy aside when taking another person’s art into consideration. And yet, the production  experiences of Lea Seydoux and Adele Exacrchopoulos sound so uniformly disturbing that it’s going to be difficult to distract myself from that while watching. At least they seem mostly proud with the final product, were the first actors to ever share a Palme D’Or with a director, and have a friendship-through-mutual-trauma to show for it.

At the very least it’ll be interesting to see how all of this, and Julie Maroh’s comments, impacts its US reception. Having said all that, if we let it alter how we see the film irrevocably, everything they experienced would have been for nothing. And if I can mostly put it aside when it comes to the experiences of Bjork and Maria Schnieder, to name a couple of more famous cases, I’ll do my best here as well. Because seriously; this looks amazing.

3. Gravity (Cuaron)
Release Date: October 4th

Many years, cast changes and production restarts later, Gravity is finally here. An impossibly ambitious project that looks like an overwhelming sensory experience and a technical achievement people for the ages. The trailer brings me to tears; not because of typical movie-going emotions, but because we can actually feel how terrifying Bullock’s situation is; the helplessness, the terror, the panic,. The idea of going through 90 minutes of this is hard to imagine. But I can’t wait to do it.  Can we also appreciate that it has been 7 years since Children of Men?

Steve Carell in Foxcatcher
2. Foxcatcher (Miller)
Release Date: December 20th

My #2 is a film nobody has seen and which has no trailer. A grand total of 3 stills have been released. Bennett Miller has had this passion project in the conceptual works as far back as his work on Capote. Every single thing about this project has me hooked. I am a huge Steve Carell fan and this is a massive departure for him with the actor tapping into some very dark places for a bizarre and ambiguous true story. Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures is very quickly becoming a surefire stamp of quality and Miller has elevated both the biopic and sports film which his contributions to each.  I desperately hope that Foxcatcher can join the ranks of Capote and Moneyball for a third stellar picture.

1. Her (Jonze)
Release Date: December 18th

Another film that hasn’t yet been seen, it should go without saying that Her is the film I am most looking forward to this fall. Spike Jonze films all have a melancholic air about them, an air that has prevented me from revisiting two of his films since seeing them in theaters. There’s a difference between a depressing film and a melancholic film. I have an easier time with depressing films by far. But Jonze’s work is always a unique vision, high concept in some fashion, made memorable by its visuals and ideas. The stunningly promising trailer is a hint of what is to come, surely a film like no other.

The Rest:
Camille Claudel, 1915
August: Osage County
Out of the Furnace
In the Name Of
Le Week-end
The Invisible Woman
The Fifth Estate
Bettie Page Reveals All
Escape from Tomorrow
Touchy Feely
Captain Phillips
Insidious: Chapter 2
Price of Gold
Thanks for Sharing
The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete
Haute Cuisine
The Institute
The Last Time I Saw Macao
Jack Ryan
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
About Time
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
Mr. Nobody
How I Live Now
The Book Thief
Ender’s Game
Thor: The Dark World
Saving Mr. Banks
Romeo & Juliet
All the Boys Love Mandy Lane
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty
Out in the Dark
Escape Plan
The Great Beauty
Grace of Monaco

Secret Beyond the Door (1947, Lang) is a deeply conflicted film about conflict with the self

Originally posted on Vérité as part of their Cinema Obscura column which highlights films from the lesser known sectors of the medium which we feel are worth discovering.


Fritz Lang’s mid-career contribution to the streak of Freudian-laced features in 1940’s Hollywood is a can’t-look-away curio. A modern retelling of Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard, it is a fairy-tale noir, a psychological melodrama and a descendent of 19th century Gothic Romance of the who-did-I-just-marry variety. Secret Beyond the Door demands to be rediscovered and properly appreciated. It is a hallucinatory and spiritedly flawed film, made all the more rewarding for the oddity it undoubtedly is and the way in which Fritz Lang dives with reckless abandon into the life of the frayed mind.

The opening credits are accompanied by a blatant Dali-inspired image. The title emerges; the ‘S’ of ‘Secret’ carrying its unwieldy arch across the screen. Twinkling music gives way to a bevy of overlapping images that together convey the unknown. Rippling water reflects the clouds and stars of the nighttime sky, a paper boat dissolves into an uninviting forest of daffodils. Through this the deep husk of Joan Bennett’s voice, talking of dreams and stating “this is no time for me to talk of danger; this is my wedding day”.


This opening scene conveys much of what Secret Beyond the Door sets out to be. It tells a stock story, but immediately sets up the visual and aural landscape as the headspace of the characters, made up of overt symbolism and dreamy voiceover narration. As the film gets underway it steps back from the purity of that first scene, but retains the same expressionistic perspective where rooms, doors, shadings, and inner monologue make up a psychological map of conflicting emotions and impulses. New York socialite Celia (Joan Bennett) goes on one last fling to Mexico before resolving to settle down. In this steamy exotic locale she meets Mark (Michael Redgrave in his American film debut), an architect who speaks in frank poeticisms. The two are immediately drawn to each other and are married within days. Between Mark’s inexplicable mood swings and an undisclosed past life which includes a deceased wife, a precocious son, a controlling sister, and a Danvers-like secretary complete with facial scar, Celia is quick to realize she has married a stranger. The tipping point comes when she discovers that Mark’s theory of “the way a place is built determines what happens in it” has manifested as a hobby of  his re-creating collecting “felicitous rooms” where brutal murders throughout history have taken place. And what is hidden behind room number seven, where nobody is allowed to enter?

Joan Bennett’s voiceover carries through a sizable portion of the runtime. It starts out as the guide for a short flashback sequence but soon unconventionally shifts into stream-of-consciousness. Wistful reminiscence gives way to her obsessive thought-process in the moment events occur. Inside she is fraught and confused, but on the outside Celia is resolute; a far cry from the lilting naiveté of many Gothic heroines. Her performance repositions weakness as a resolute inner conflict between the inexplicable draw of desire and her incomprehensible commitment to see this marriage through. Celia is introduced as someone who is openly turned on and captivated by two men who tussle during a deadly knife fight over a woman. Mrs. De Winter #2 she is not.


Secret Beyond the Door is a film about literalizing the rabbit hole of the subconscious and the complicated nature of desire. Celia and Mark share a mutual attachment to death; one seems to harbor a death wish while the other is in danger of compliance. The film examines what draws men and women to each other under inadvisable circumstances. Its broader psychological concerns with this arena of thought separate it from other films within the Rebecca trend of 1940s Hollywood.

The dismissive pop-psychology climax cannot diminish the film’s thoughtful and florid expressionistic make-up. The artificial sets are used as platforms by masterful cinematographer Stanley Cortez to create an endlessly shaded maze that seems to exist outside of time, space or logical geography. Characters step in and out of shrouded shadow, forever traveling to and from quarters which represent the forbidden subconscious.

Secret Beyond the Door is a deeply conflicted film about conflict with the self. When the bifurcation of the character’s desires fall into sync with the film’s flaws amidst the inherent silliness, the results are divine. Its flaws are embedded in a compulsively watchable nuttiness but Fritz Lang’s wholly mystic and even superstitious commitment to the psychological is apparent in every single shot and makes this a baroque and messily uncut little jewel.

Review: Mud (2013, Nichols)


Jeff Nichols’ third film has the timeless coming-of-age feel of a classic YA adaptation, the kind of book you were forced to read (and then watch) as part of the school curriculum, that years later you find yourself looking back on as an important part of your adolescence.

In this rugged fable, Ellis (The Tree of Life’s Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) find themselves in way over their heads as they try to help an enigmatic and superstitious fugitive (Matthew McConaughey).

Mud tangibly establishes its contained riverbed surroundings, but more importantly lets us feel the blossoming perspective that comes with adolescence. It is a world-shaking shock to learn that there are expiration dates and complexities to love and life, and that the world of adults is a selfish and complex place. In these respects  Mud succeeds in showing the dangers of a young boy risking all for what he believes to be long-lost love. We watch as Ellis slowly finds his feet in the sticky self-centeredness of human emotion. Tye Sheridan, a child actor who we can only hope has a big career ahead of him, anchors himself admirably within the experiences of Ellis, which are universal yet intimate. There’s also an appreciative childhood familiarity to the way the riverbeds and crunchy woods are shot by Adam Stone, with Nichols’ Arkansas background once again serving him well.

Once Mud settles into its intriguing hook of a story, it hits a predictable stride, becoming somewhat disengaged when it asks us to become invested in anything outside Ellis’ immediate orbit. Ellis’ interactions with his father (Ray McKinnon), Neckbone, and especially the title character are all deftly absorbing, but it loses itself a bit as it starts to get weighed down with plotting in the latter half. And the women are all inconvenient problem-causers offered no perspective of their own, representative of that outdated lesson that if you give a woman your heart, disloyalty and heartbreak lie ahead. What  Mud is trying to get across is genuinely heartfelt, but it’s a bit too generalized as a women-weary cautionary tale.

Most of all, Mud feels faithfully borne out of the mind and experiences of Ellis and made with boys his age in mind. Hollywood rarely thinks about the malleable minds within teenage demographics; from a money-making perspective it’s all about asking what teenage boys want to see, not what will ring true or spark their minds. Yet here comes a film made for young boys, used to being endlessly served with robots, aliens and raunchiness, that has the potential to engage and resonate with them, avoiding condescension and feeling truthful to their experience.

Originally posted on Vérité: