Top Ten By Year: 1930


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From In the Picture: Production Stills from the TCM Archives

Previous Top Ten By Year Entries: 
1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, 1978, 1925, 2005

1930 Coverage:
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1930: A Love Letter
Top Ten By Year: 1930 – Poll Results 
Movie Poster Highlights: 1930 
100 Images from the Films of 1930 
Favorite Fashion in 1930 Film

Sources:
A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film – Richard Barrios
The Speed of Sound: Hollywood and the Talkie Revolution: 1926-1930 – Scott Eyman
From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies – Molly Haskell

For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year project:
The majority of my viewing habits have been dictated by this project since September 2013. Jumping to a different decade each time, I pick weak years for me re: quantity of films seen and/or quality of films seen in comparison to other years from said decade. I use list-making to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-driven way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on personal ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’.

Reel talk: 1930, seminal touchstones notwithstanding, is seen as one of the weaker years in cinema. At the very least nobody really talks about it. I like to get feedback on what my followers are interested in seeing, so while debating my next year for this project I presented Twitter with a choice between 1930 and 1934. Only a handful chose 1930. The further 1934 pulled away with the win, the less interested I was in choosing it. And there are no regrets; I’ve learned more about film from 1930 than any other year within the Top Ten By Year Project.

Before settling into what turned out to be six months of 1930 film hibernation, I’d never truly grasped why the resistance to talkies at the time was so staunchly uniform, seen and experienced by the industry as a cultural apocalypse. I’d never fully grasped why so many couldn’t see the possibilities of a revolutionary technology in its infancy. Well, of course the transition would be rough, with many new adjustments, restrictions, and considerations in the mix. But didn’t they see it’d be worth it? Didn’t they see it was the obvious next step in the evolution of cinema?

Richard Barrios writes in his book A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film that “the face of hindsight can, quite often, wear an unpleasant sneer”(59). As I sank deeper into hibernation, the patronizing remnants afforded by that cocky over-the-shoulder perspective from the future slipped away. Now I’m quite amazed anyone had the foresight (I’m looking at you Sam Warner) to see sound’s potential and the positive ways it could and would transform product and industry.

This foresight/hindsight angle relates to books that I read about the dawn of sound period (1926-1930), legitimately rocky years that qualify as “one of the most chaotic times in American culture…a time of immense upheaval, enormous change, and a quite singular mix of uncertainty and confidence”(Eyman, 4). Uncertainty because the studios didn’t really consider what sound meant for artistic parameters regarding the technology’s initial suffocating limitations. After Warner Brothers opened the gates to a new frontier, everything was turned upside down as studios rat raced through a “brutal crude transplantation”(Eyman). The process of filmmaking was now made up of “physical claustrophobia, narrative obfuscation, and an unimaginably confusing technical nightmare of crossed cables and purposes”(Eyman). The name of the game became Dialogue, Dialogue, Dialogue. It doesn’t matter what they say, just make the stars say it!

While sound men enjoyed their short reign as set Kings, actors braced themselves for make-it-or-break-it performance reviews in the form of sound tests. It didn’t matter who you were, veteran star or bit player; your entire career was uncertain until pass/fail tested for sound by your studio. Suffice it to say, fear ran rampant. William Haines described this period as “the night of the Titanic all over again” (Barrios, 75). And this from an MGM star! MGM was the most apprehensive studio when it came to sound, and that extra time presumably provided them with a slightly less chaotic stretch than most. Star personas had to be reconfigured and reestablished. Many couldn’t successfully make the leap, most famously John Gilbert, whose catastrophic fall from grace came from being unceremoniously hung out to dry by hackneyed dialogue and poor direction (I’m looking at you Lionel Barrymore). The ever-savvy MGM may have botched Gilbert, but they also made genius publicity out of the ‘what do the stars sound like’ craze, making “Garbo Talks!” the movie event of 1930. While the star machine had a great fall, and tried to put itself back together again, countless young Broadway performers were flown out and audience tested via shorts and features, largely primed for failed movie stardom.

The Movie Musical, the only genre made entirely possible by sound technology, is the industry’s key microcosm from this time. Skipping ahead to 1929, the success of The Broadway Melody spawned a riot (we’re talking endless, folks) of imitators, with little to no creative expansion, quality control, or narrative variety. Stage musicals were adapted left and right with most of the hit songs inexplicably dumped and replaced with forgettable warblings. Song and/or dance scenes remained stuffy and square. There was no frame of reference for putting song and dance on film. Within twelve months, save for a few smash successes like The Love Parade and Rio Rita, musicals went from being the genre du jour to enough already! Now, this sort of thing happens all the time. The rush for product and for more of the successful same. But with a new technology, with musicals that were “obviously conceived in panic and manufactured in ignorance”, this cash sprint re: musicals can be more broadly applied to this brief unsure era (Barrios).

All of this context is to say that 1930 is the year Hollywood shook itself off and regained its footing. By this time, film rhythm and consistency was illustrating that, for all their troubles, Hollywood was on the other side of the sound barrier. The year saw a record film attendance of 110 million (compare that to 65 million in 1928 and 60 million in 1932) (Barrios). Blimps had been developed that allowed cameras to be more mobile, free of their initial soundproof booths. The studios were well on their way towards working with sound-on-film technology as opposed to the cumbersome sync-sound. New film stocks made the monochrome spectrum wider. Formal freedom was still coming around but there was a wild sense of trial-and-error experimentation. In 1930, nearly every musical incorporated Two-color Technicolor to some degree. Some studios were trying out inventions that would live and die within 1930, such as 65-70 mm formats like Magnafilm and Grandeur. Sound films began to step out on the streets and into the wilderness. Genre was like a stacked buffet plate, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Sci-fi, horror, mystery, and gangster films (The Doorway to Hell really established this one, though the films of 1931 get the credit) were just around the corner, but they crop up in the unlikeliest of places in 1930. Pre-Code hit the salacious stride it continued until the Code’s enforcement four years later. Directors in the US and overseas, such as Hitchcock, Hawks, Grémillon were already experimenting with sound in ways covert and overt. International film industries were catching up, beginning to make their transitions from silent to sound.

Sure, some films from 1930 come across as quaint and static in their awkwardness, but far less than you’d think. Editing rhythms and camera set-ups had loosened up considerably by this time, and it’s easy to see sound film finding its own groove thanks to filmmakers committed to making improvements and trying things out. I’ve learned that stilted is the misguided adjective of choice when it comes to present-day reviews of 1930 films. When films like The Bat Whispers and The Divorcee are described as such, it’s unfortunate and downright perplexing, not just for its falsehood, but because there’s a world of difference between what ‘stilted’ means to modern day cinephiles and what it actually means within the scope of 1930 releases. Watch Let Us Be Gay and then get back to me (whether you’re a fan of this one or not, it’s an excellent encapsulation of what 1930 ‘stilted’ actually looks and feels like).

Time and time again I was beside myself by visual flourishes and caution-to-the-wind spiritedness. Cinematographers were finding ways to navigate and convey exterior worlds. Directors were finding ways to communicate interior worlds. Screenwriters were figuring out how to inject nuance and quality over quantity. Actors were adjusting to the modern and getting at core truths. On their own, many of these films stand tall and proud, but collectively, they lift each other up.

With the advent of sound, many thought something had been irretrievably lost. Perhaps rightly so. Sensuality, fantasy, and the translucent magic of silent cinema needed to be redefined from the ground up. And the films of 1930 begin to show what that would look and sound like for the decades to come.

Nitrate Diva wrote a great piece on 1930, which, I’m honored to say, was inspired by this project! She also includes her 10 picks! It’s a beautifully written portrait of the undiscovered riches of the year. Her prose capabilities are far beyond mine, so please do yourself a favor and check it out!

Biggest Disappointments:
Anybody’s Woman
Her Man
Just Imagine
A Notorious Affair
Not So Dumb
Paid

The Five Worst 1930 Films I Watched:
1. Golden Dawn
2. Feet First
3. Romance
4. Free and Easy
5. A Notorious Affair

TOTAL LIST OF FILMS SEEN IN 1930
(bold = first-time viewing, italic =  re-watch)
10 Minuten Mozart (short) Aimless Walk (short),
All Quiet on the Western Front, Animal Crackers, A Notorious Affair, Anybody’s Woman, Au bonheur des dames, The Bat Whispers, The Big House, The Big Trail, Blood of a Poet, The Blue Angel, Borderline, City Girl, Dance of Her Hands (short), The Dawn Patrol, The Divorcee, Die drei von der Tankstelle, The Doorway to Hell, Fast and Loose, Feet First, Follow Thru, For the Defense, Free and Easy, Golden Dawn, Hell’s Angels, Her Man, Just Imagine, King of Jazz, L’age d’Or, Ladies of Leisure, Laughter, Let Us Be Gay, Light Rhythms (short), Liliom, Madam Satan, Mechanical Principles (short), Min and Bill, Monte Carlo, Morocco, Murder!, Mysterious Mose (short), Not So Dumb, Our Blushing Brides, Outward Bound, Paid, La petite Lise, People on Sunday, Prix de beaute, Romance, Street of Chance, Swing You Sinners! (short), The Tale of the Fox, Tomatoes Another Day (short), Under the Roofs of Paris, Way for a Sailor

Honorable Mentions: The Big House, Blood of a Poet, Animal Crackers, Monte Carlo, The Divorcee, Follow Thru, The Dawn Patrol, Morocco, Our Blushing Brides (I have such a fondness for each of these films, it must be said)

KEY:
RW = Rewatch
FTV = First-time Viewing

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10. Au bonheur des dames (France/Le Film d’Art/Duvivier) (FTV)
With its go-for-broke commitment to evoking the rhythms of modern Paris, watching Au bonheur des dames feels a little like skydiving without a parachute. Silent film is nearly extinct, the bottom has dropped out, and Julien Duvivier is using everything in his arsenal to send it off in style. I watched this after consuming nearly three dozen 1930 talkies. Though sound films of the year are far less collectively creaky than history gives them credit for, it was still a considerable jolt to be unclipped from the technological constraints of fuzzy sounds and rational worlds.

A minute into ‘Au bonheur’, Denise (Dita Parlo), an orphan arriving in Paris to work for her uncle, is immediately swallowed up by Capital-C Capitalism. A train rushes into the station while feet scurry in all directions, a symphony of urban life’s hurried routine. Denise’s eyes dart everywhere, trying to take it all in as she’s shuffled to and fro, smothered by the crowd of people and superimposed images. The second she exits the station, she notices a plane flying overhead. Flyers are dropped like confetti. She grabs one out of the sky, reads it, and smiles as if she’s just found one of Wonka’s Golden Tickets. It says “Everything You Want at ‘Au bonheur des dames'”. It’s an advertisement for the behemoth department store across the street from her uncle’s failing dilapidated shop. Capitalism is relentless, and giving in makes you feel good.

Lively Soviet montage and overt expressionism coincide with blinking electric lights and aggressive razzmatazz to show “progress” as pervasive. Duvivier utilizes the accumulation of silent cinema stylings for an inadvertent send-off to the now obsolete era. ‘Au bonheur’ is alive and immediate, building to an impossible-to-shake feverish crescendo that thankfully obscures the cop-out ending to follow.

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9. Liliom (US/Fox/Borzage) (FTV)
Available on youtube

There are two kinds of spaces in Liliom. The first is inside the carnival. That mockup hallucinatory carnival made of miniatures, dazzling lights, and bustling sounds. It’s a magical space where anything can happen, but only if you keep up. The second is anything outside the carnival, most notably domestic spaces. The carnival is always visible from the outside but the outside is never visible from within. The interiors are spacious, barren, minimalist, surrounded by gaps of frustrated silence. There is a clear delineation between the two. All this to say that Frank Borzage and his collaborators at Fox go to great length to make theatricality modern, presenting a weird vision of fantastical artificiality that easily transitions into the equally weird metaphysical final act. (Let me also take this moment to say that I am a huge fan of early cinematic depictions of the afterlife. By far the most alluring period for this kind of story.)

At the end of Liliom, the Chief Magistrate (H.B. Warner) says this of what he has witnessed: “It’s touching. It’s mysterious”. Simply and succinctly, that’s also Liliom. This is a story about two people who should not be together, but can’t not be together. This is a film that ends with a speech about, to put it bluntly and without context, domestic abuse being okay if it comes from the person you love. But the tragedy of that, and it, are so genuinely and oddly moving. Because this decree of sorts is true for Julie. Liliom is told through a romantically fatalistic lens. Fatalism in the apparent wrongness of the couple. Julie’s (Rose Hobart) only other romantic option is a carpenter named Carpenter who speaks in monosyllabic monotone. He is seemingly alive for the sole purpose of asking Julie (for years and years mind you) if she is free and interested (“No, Carpenter”). This is also a film that resolves with this statement; “The memory of you makes them much happier than you ever could”. Talk about brutal. But Liliom is about the messy complexities of individual truths. The unchangable and unswayable.

The technical achievement and formal ambition of Liliom are two of its defining characteristics. This was the first film to use rear projection, and its use of miniatures is woozily magical. Borzage uses space so well, in part by utilizing blocking and emphasizing body language. The camera has the mobility of a sophisticated silent. Take the feverish moment where Julie and Marie (Mildred Van Dorn) first enter the carnival. The camera actually deserts them, so eager it is to explore the place itself.

Full review here

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8. Laughter (US/Paramount/d’Arrast) (FTV)
Very poor quality version available on youtube

Halfway through Laughter, pals Paul (Fredric March) and Peggy (Nancy Carroll) (the newly married ‘one-that-got-away’) are out and about on a daytime drive (in this scene, Paul impulsively kisses the back of Peggy’s neck while driving and it’s one of the sexiest gestures ever committed to film). Their car suddenly breaks down and, of course, an impromptu rainstorm follows. They seek shelter by breaking and entering, where they promptly begin to roleplay marriage as the ‘Smiths’ (Why? Because why not?). They trade traditional gender roles, with ‘Mr. Smith’ dutifully offering ‘Mrs. Smith’ her slippers and pipe, adding that he baked a strawberry pie for dinner. The pair is oh-so-pleased with their flirtation-as-evasion repartee, but somehow it’s not cloying. Instead, it’s goddamn charming. Eventually, the sequence takes a turn for the weird as Peggy puts on a black bearskin rug from the living room floor (Why? Because why not?), crawling and growling around in circles. Paul, highly amused, quickly joins in by putting on the other bearskin rug (this one white) across the room. Our romantic leads have gone from one kind of pretend to another. This is all part of what is perhaps Laughter‘s most memorable sequence, and it’s indicative of how the film operates as a whole.

Laughter is made up of characters vibing off each other, transforming and controlling (or failing to control) the interior spaces around them. The sequence described above illustrates this. Paul and Peggy take over a foreign space and use it for their make-believes, becoming spouses and wild animals. They drape their wet clothes all over the furniture, and drink coffee in the kitchen while they lounge in their bearskins.

Long-shot dependence tends to indicate stagnancy by 1930 film standards, but in Laughter they are critical, used to establish the importance of spaces in relation to character. Towering Art Deco rooms threaten to isolate characters with lonely wonder until Paul comes in and livens up the joint. Sterile business offices echo with the dependable sound of typewriters. A spacious apartment above a club is overrun with clutter, accompanied by the far-off boozy drawl of horn instruments.

There is an uncommonly natural touch to everything in Laughter. Plot shows its face when summoned, but the characters refuse to be tethered to it. They lead the way, sometimes with spunk, sometimes with somber resignation.

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7. Prix de Beauté (France/Sofar-Film/Genina) (RW)
I simply cannot deny Louise. Prix de Beauté is the last European hurrah for my all-time favorite screen presence. After this she’d return to Hollywood, land of bit parts and bankruptcy. She led a long life post-Prix de Beauté, but this is the film that siphons off her celluloid legend. If Louise fills the frame, if the film knows how to showcase her effortless and unaffected mythic energy, down-to-earth and beyond us all with that irrepressible glow, does the film itself matter?

I happen to enjoy the by-turns awkward and arresting Prix de Beauté very much. One of the first sound films made in France (it also has a 1929 silent version), it resembles a rough cut in that, though there’s vision in its organic images, nothing, except Brooks, is completely locked into place. It’s a talkie with an entirely silent sensibility, made possible by the fact that the sound, including dialogue, took place during post-production. This frees up the camera for rambunctious mobility at every turn, and it’s supported by the zeal that drives Lucienne toward her dreams. She wants to participate in a beauty contest, but her boyfriend won’t allow it. With a choice of being owned by her beau or worshiped by the public, she deserves more than both but achieves neither. The famous final sequence, dizzying in its flickering destruction, strikes Lucienne down just as her (screen) life begins. As sound ushers in, Louise Brooks is ushered out, her physical body left behind for something incorporeal, an eerily fitting finale to her immortal image.

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6. Ladies of Leisure (US/Columbia/Capra) (FTV)
Available on youtube

Ladies of Leisure features Barbara Stanwyck in her star-making role, the first of several collaborations with Frank Capra. It also happens to be some of her best work and in one of her best films. I’m not used to seeing her this vulnerable, yet this is how the country at large became acquainted with her. Barbara Stanwyck is down-to-earth glamour. Relatable glamour. Even at this very early stage it’s impossible to miss that she is in stark contrast with other actors from her time. This is a woman performing in the ‘now’. Her body language isn’t practiced. She breaks through the conventional with seeming spontaneity. She’s the perfect person for Frank Capra to direct, because in Ladies of Leisure he not only gives her plenty of backlit close-ups defying audiences not to fall in love with her, but devotes an uncommon (for 1930) length of time lingering on confidential and intimate moments that map out Kay’s internal longing.

Despite being based on a play, Frank Capra already shows an adept hand at visual storytelling in addition to fluid pacing. Bypassing sluggishness, even as the film nosedives into the saccharine, there is a clarity and distinct visual perspective supporting Kay’s story.

Take the erotically charged rainy night sleepover that comes mid-film. It’s erotically charged in the silences, in what isn’t happening, in what Kay wants to happen, in what could happen. The pace of this sequence is different than the rest. The situation slowly develops, as Kay gradually allows herself to believe in the possible. It builds to a simple act of kindness that produces the film’s most telling and heartfelt moment. A lone doorknob turns. Footsteps reveal that Jerry the painter (Ralph Graves) has left his room in the middle of the night. He slowly approaches Kay’s bed. In another film the scene would be eerie, bad intentions assumed. Kay is sleeping. Jerry lays a blanket over her and heads back to bed. Close-up on Kay. She wasn’t asleep at all. The camera lingers on her face and closes in further, tears glistening. She pulls the blanket to her mouth. Everything we need to know about Kay occurs in this moment. This simple act of kindness means the world to her, and it has left her shaking and crying with joy.

Critically, Capra foregrounds Kay’s (Stanwyck) love as a character-driven arc rooted in class, lifelong struggle, and hope. You don’t have to buy into Kay and Jerry (and you won’t) to buy into the film. Forget the lame egg basket in whom Kay places said hopes and dreams. Just focus on witnessing a downtrodden woman who, for the first time in her life, experiences what happiness is, what it can mean, and its potential in her own life. The fortuitous union of Barbara Stanwyck’s startling modernism (I still can’t imagine how jarring her vivid physicality must have played for 1930 audiences) and Frank Capra’s intuitive prioritization of the inner life.

citygirl

5. City Girl (US/Fox/Murnau) (FTV)
Available on youtube 

I’m going to let a couple of paragraphs from Daniel Kasman’s MUBI piece speak for my love of City Girl. Suffice it to say that it is every bit as great as Sunrise, and may just be my personal preference:

“Murnau is realism + poetry, and slimming down his materials to such a leanness as inCity Girl lets his hand water, flower, and blossom every element at his disposal.  You have never seen a city diner in American film, felt its heat, its hubbub, its routine, its turnover, its charm, its tedium and its spunk until you have seen City Girl and you see how Farrel casually meets and unconsciously courts Duncan at the diner counter.  You have never seen the loneliness of life in the city until you see the light of a passing elevated train sputter across Duncan’s face and her tiny potted plant in her cramped apartment. The enchantment of a farm has never been put on film—and perhaps has never been found again—until Ernest Palmer’s camera follows with expressionist joy the gleeful run of the young married couple across the family’s wheatfield upon their arrival.”

king of jazz 84. King of Jazz (US/Universal/Anderson) (FTV)
Since seeing King of Jazz four months ago, it has been restored and has screened at MOMA for their series Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries: 1928-1937. There even a book coming out!

King of Jazz was the first of the revue craze of 1929-mid 1930 to enter the planning stage, and the last of the major efforts to be released. It went hugely over-budget (which is abundantly clear while watching), and was released at the wrong time. By the time it finally hit theaters, audiences were thoroughly ‘revued’ out. I hardly have anything to compare it to, but it is said that King of Jazz stands out from others of its kind in every way. Paul Whiteman and his orchestra are the center from which a series of musical numbers and skits revolve. His nickname, the title of the film, seems ridiculous because it is, but also keep in mind that jazz in this time period has a much broader implication. Think of how ‘pop’ is applied today.

Universal threw everything, and I mean everything, into this project. Surely one of the weirdest movies to come out of the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s also the most elaborate and audacious spectacle film I’ve seen from the early 30’s. It features the first Technicolor cartoon, a shrunken orchestra marching out of a box, a giant larger-than-life scrapbook, ghost brides, the world’s longest bridal veil, extravagant mobile sets, superimposed images and related special effects, and, in what must be the scariest image in 1930’s cinema, Paul Whiteman as a winking moon in the sky. And the whole thing’s in Two-Strip Technicolor to boot.

The conceptual center of the impressive “Melting Pot” finale is what you might guess; promoting diversity while completely whitewashing a convoluted ‘history of jazz’. The pointed absence of African Americans is unsurprisingly everywhere. The one time African culture makes any kind of appearance is the prologue bit to the “Rhapsody in Blue” number, at once breathtaking and troubling. Dressed in Zulu chief garb, dancer Jacques Cartier stands on an oversized drum for a stage. His projected silhouette is made giant on the wall behind him. He begins to dance with direct ferocity. The eroticism of it is hypnotic, but the sexual nature of the thing reeks of the blanket exoticism so often depicted through ‘Otherness’.

King of Jazz works because the Universal team and director John Murray Anderson (Paul Fejos also contributed at some point before leaving) understand that there are different kinds of spectacle. There’s the special effects spectacle, which comes in all forms throughout here. There is also the music-centric spectacle. An early scene features copious close-ups of — not even musicians playing their instruments but something even more up close and personal; instruments being played. Another scene takes a different approach by capturing the interplay between a band and its components. Without cutting, the camera keeps up with the music by quickly panning over to each soloist. Finally, there is the grand scale production spectacle, and boy does it deliver on that front.

Though his rotund self has a welcoming energy, Paul Whiteman seems quite the random figure to construct a film around. But it falls in line with the early sound period trend of bringing in band leaders as well as talent from vaudeville and theater in order to give them film vehicles. Even when it’s boring, it’s not, if that makes sense (I realize it doesn’t. Maybe one day I can describe this sedate sensation). It moves along at such a clip, and its sheer audaciousness coupled with genuine spark makes this a “seen to be believed” kind of film. It’s also beautifully, and I mean beautifully, photographed (Ray Rennahan, one of the film’s three cinematographers, was an innovator in the development of three-strip Technicolor).

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3. Dance of Her Hands (short) (US/Nutshell Pictures/Bel Geddes) (FTV)
Available on youtube

Dance of Her Hands features dancer/choreographer/actress Tilly Losch at the height of her lithe powers. This short stages “The Hand Dance”, a collaborative conception between Losch and Hedy Pfundmayr. At the start, Tilly’s head is behind netting while the titular hands take center frame. Her hands lilt and quiver, they scurry and contort. But most of all there’s a palpable yearning to her movements. We soon meet the rest of her, a witchy puppetmaster that casts spells with her digits. Her performance is further abstracted by the pitch black negative space, a presentation that emphasizes the sensual and dislodges Losch from any kind of concrete reality. The hands lead and her body follows. Self-expression manifests as a delicate ache that can only be resolved through movement.

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2. Menschen am Sonntag (People on Sunday) (Germany/FilmStudio Berlin/Siodmak, Siodmak, Ulmer, Zinneman) (RW)
Available on youtube 

Menschen am Sonntag looks far ahead to the French New Wave and Italian neorealism. It also looks ahead to the substantial careers of Billy Wilder, Edgar G. Ulmer, Robert Siodmak, Curt Siodmak, and Fred Zinneman. It incorporates a humanistic and carefree take on the city symphony film while keeping with the signatures of New Objectivity. Menschen am Sonntag is notable for near-countless reasons. These distinctions matter, enormously so, but while watching it, you’re too busy basking in the impermanence of its direct sunlight to intellectualize its images.

There’s a special twinkle to films that capture an immaculate specificity of time and place. In Menschen am Sonntag, 1930 Berlin radiates loud and clear, from roaming streetcars and chaotic intersections to now-immortalized store window displays and sparse graffiti. Individual Berliners get snapshots taken, a moment from their random Sunday saved for posterity as they self-consciously stare into the camera. Berlin hustles and bustles with an energy that carries over into the scenic Nikolassee, suggesting that weekend reprieves must be seized upon with a joie de vivre that suggests not a recreational moment should be wasted. The forcefulness of the sunlight matches the youthful characters scene for scene.

There’s a shrewd perceptiveness to how Menschen am Sonntag hones in on the unspoken that goes on between young men and women. The participants may or may not be aware, but a game made of almost imperceptible moments is always in motion. Anything seems possible. These connections are both monumental and fleeting, a coexistence only possible in youth. Glances are had, love is made, betrayal is imminent. All in the same day, all under the surface. Both extraordinary and just another Sunday.

Every once in a while we check back in with Berlin. Annie sleeps all day, surrounded by pictures of movie stars. People sit on benches and look out their windows. Life being lived, or not, all at the same time. Films didn’t convey this in 1930. They don’t even convey it now, though a handful sure as hell try. Recent attempts to examine the scope of everyday life can be found in the ham-fistedness of the hyperlink film. When these work it’s through the scope. The ‘everyday’ part is substituted with melodrama or a deliberate larger-than-life feel. That doesn’t take away from those films; they just have a different prerogative. Conversely, plenty of films capture the everyday of transitory youth but aren’t aiming for that scope. This rare combination demands flexibility in the nonexistence of story, and by floating back and forth from our frolicking quartet in order to incorporate the character of Berlin, Menschen am Sonntag creates magic in reality.

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1. Madam Satan (US/MGM/DeMille) (RW)
As often happens, I’m at a loss when the time comes to describe my love for #1. The following write-up will probably operate as groundwork for something I wish to eventually expand on.

Cecil B. DeMille also had a film on Top Ten By Year: 1925, the outrageously fun time-travel romance The Road to Yesterday. When DeMille isn’t overtaken by his preachy paradoxes, when he finds his brand of balance within the at-times absurd imbalance of his films, you get something that doesn’t exist anywhere else. In 1928, DeMille signed a three-picture deal with MGM. Madam Satan was the second of these films, with Dynamite and The Squaw Man coming before and after respectively. Unsurprisingly, Madam Satan was a major flop, with MGM posting a 390,000 loss. Even then, audiences had no idea what to make of this thing. What was it? What is it? It’s everything, but is it anything?

Madam Satan tends to be regarded as a cuckoo collectible. Oddity, trainwreck, loony, bonkers, bizarre; you get the gist of attributed adjectives. And, yeah, it’s all of those things. My love for this film often defies logic. Hell, outside of “Low Down” the songs aren’t even good (!), and they certainly aren’t helped by the poor sound quality of the era which renders sopranos incomprehensibly shrill. At times it seems like the film is about to indulge itself into oblivion, so caught up it is in exhausting every aesthetic or tonal thread.

(Sidenote: even fans of Madam Satan tend to universally disregard the supposedly “lethal first hour”, a bedroom farce involving the central four characters. I will never understand this (Barrios)! It’s a zany concoction of shade throwing, false niceties, and lots of physical scrambling. It’s actually my favorite section of the film. It also stands as a perfect example of DeMille’s whim for hitting the reset button halfway through one of his pictures.)

Madam Satan could only exist in 1930;  “in its very derangement, it embodies a distinctive trait of original musicals: they tended to treat the medium as a collage of found objects, jamming the most ordinary conventions alongside some truly lunatic notions” (Barrios, 252). This first wave of movie musicals would soon be extinct. The second wave, which came a couple of years later, emerged with already clear-cut delineations between the real (backstage romance) and the unreal (the insular world of a Berkeley number).

A boudoir sex comedy, a disaster film, a remarriage romance, a momentary tribute to electricity, an Art Deco orgy, a misshapen musical. Madam Satan is all of these (like I said, it’s everything, but is it anything? I say yes). Some of these designations will suddenly disappear, the aforementioned boudoir sex comedy for example, but DeMille goes all-in on each one for the duration of its stay. Madam Satan is a case against cohesion. If DeMille wants the zeppelin to crash, doggone it, that zeppelin is going to crash. If he wants to spend twenty minutes on the grand entrances of Adrian-draped costume-ball attendees with names like “Fish Girl” and “Spider Girl”, he’ll do it. The story will catch up when, or if, there’s a moment to breathe. .

The Art Deco sets and costumes, by Cedric Gibbons and Adrian respectively, are used to unite fantasy and glamour. The iconic look created for Kay Johnson’s alter-ego is a sequined nude-illusion for the gods. As archaic as a lot of Madam Satan‘s sexual politics are, this is the image people remember, this presentation of defiant transformation and reclamation. That entrance, with its unintelligible trilling and costume-reveal-as-magic-act, drips with a hard-earned heroic self-regard. It’s easy to forget that Angela has turned herself into a sex goddess superhero to seduce her philandering and entirely unworthy husband back into the fold. But DeMille, in a radical act for the time, strove to make marriage sexy by “daring to suggest that the married woman was as desirable and exciting as the pubescent party girl” (Haskell, 76). So Madam Satan can also add “domestic fantasy” to its resume.

Madam Satan also stars Lillian Roth, one of my silver screen obsessions. A gifted comedienne with a crinkly nose, dimples for days, and a practiced yet untouched vivacity, her Trixie is a pure delight. Weaponed with a “fleshy impertinence”, she brings a humanity to the “other girl”, but not by hiding her vindictiveness (Barrios). Her unapologetic immaturity becomes attributable to age. She’s as spunky as Angela is supposedly dowdy; in fact, it’s hard not to root for her. The rest of the cast is legitimately great. Kay Johnson conveys her piety with sophistication. Reginald Denny is, against all odds, lovable as a womanizing cad. And Roland Young is an idealized Charles Ruggles; a stammering spacey drunk that doesn’t over-chew the scenery or outstay his welcome, and lands genuine laughs to boot.

Madam Satan is one of the first ‘sincere trash’ movies. I wrote about this a little, and hope to expand on it, in regards to my undying love of Valley of the Dolls. There’s an awful misconception that everything has to work in a movie you love, and if it doesn’t, your love derives from the compartmentalization of what works from what doesn’t. That, if you profess your love of something, you have to answer for all the reasons it may or may not fall short (whether that comes from others, yourself, or both). Statements like “the plot’s ridiculous and the ending is shite, but I don’t care, I love it!” or people asking “well how do you account for this?” in response to hearing that you love something.

Sure, OK, sometimes this is how it works. But just as often, it doesn’t. “I don’t care, I love it”? But I do care! I care about all of it! Madam Satan‘s very identity is dependent on its messiness, good or bad, strong or weak, entertaining or dull. Its very existence excites me, lights me up inside. Its camp qualities and, to quote the great Latrice Royale, its romper-room fuckery, is singular, and I crave films that are singular. But make no mistake. Singular alone doesn’t make for the more interesting products of greatness. Just Imagine, also from this year, is singular, and it also sucks. But this, this is an excessive extravaganza of the best kind; an unironically pleasurable proto-spectacle rendering of Kate Bush’s “Babooshka”. Madam Satan is one of the key ways in which the oft-spoken-of magic-of-the-movies registers for me.

This only scratches the surface of why Madam Satan has become one of my favorite films. These scattered thoughts are meant to work through the basics, so I left the details of its lunacy out, for now. I’ll leave the last words to Richard Barrios, who says that “in one clean sweep, it seems to embody the end of the Jazz Age, the collapse of American prosperity, the death throes of early musicals, and, most literally, the flop of this last baroque grasp of twenties frivolity.”(252). Mic drop.

Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #13-16)


Previous 1930 posts:
Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #1-4): Let Us Be Gay, Ladies of Leisure, Murder!, Anybody’s Woman
Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #5-8): Liliom, King of Jazz, The Bat Whispers, Paid
Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #9-12): Follow Thru, Fast and Loose, Romance, The Big Trail 
Top Ten By Year: 1930 – Poll Results
Movie Poster Highlights: 1930 

Monte Carlo 4

Monte Carlo (US / Paramount / Lubitsch)
Ernst Lubitsch is accurately credited as a pioneer of what we’ve come to recognize as the movie musical. 1929’s The Love Parade is often credited as the first narrative musical, and his follow-up, Monte Carlo, continues building on the accomplishments of the former. The first Hollywood musicals were an infamously rushed and immediate fad within the larger game-changing development of sound. For each Sunny Side Up or Rio Rita, there were countless embarrassingly slipshod spawns that quickly grew tedious, not to mention laughable, to the average filmgoer. The motto was More More More of the Same, and Quickly Too, which meant song as performance or non-sequitur, film as empty imitator or lazily transparent retread. The Love Parade and Monte Carlo were anomalous and groundbreaking for helping to establish what we take for granted as vital traits of the musical film; weaving narrative and music together, establishing character and story through song, seamless transitions, creative musical interplay, and sound as omnipresent asset.

Monte Carlo is a fabulous film–if only star Jack Buchanan could be erased from it. The necessity of coping with the early 1930’s Dull-As-Fuck Leading Man give-in is something I’ve rambled about a few times during the 1930 watchlist write-ups thus far. So this might look like a cue-my-hypocrisy moment, but I beg to differ. The DAFLM syndrome applies mainly to films about women, films where the boor is the male romantic lead, but not seen as, critically, a co-lead (examples: Romance, The Divorcee, etc). Thus, these snafus are easy to overlook. But Jack Buchanan is playing what would normally be the Maurice Chevalier part, a part that deems much of the story to him. You expect Chevalier’s sly visage, somehow fumbling and smooth, to be the one masquerading as Jeanette MacDonald’s hairdresser. Instead we get Buchanan, whose presence is one of reedy anti-charm. A light touch is needed for this part, and unfortunately his skeevy lingering suggests that he is, in fact, a serial trench coat flasher in his spare time.

I ran cold on Jeanette MacDonald for years. Her soprano, which isn’t exactly aided by the technology of the time, had long been my initial association with her. But over the past couple of years I’ve come around, big time (at least her Pre-Code work; the latter part of the 30’s seems to wash out her more tangible traits). She has such a glow, such a natural sensuality that you don’t expect (I’m also obsessed with her hair). It’s also impossible to ignore that Lubitsch seems intent on making sure the audience sees and knows her body. I’d thought her inaccessible to audiences, and to me. She frequently plays royalty, and her characters lean towards the unapologetically spoiled. I associate her Pre-Code work with being surrounded by servants doing every conceivable thing for her. Her characters live in an unreality even within the unreality of the movies. Yet somehow actresses like MacDonald and Miriam Hopkins get away with playing the kinds of shallow characters they so often did. Their careers took off during a precise moment in film history that relished the bratty princess type, and the Lubitsch touch provides the perfect frivolous environment for a MacDonald heroine to thrive. Selfishness has no weight or recourse here; it just adds to the fun.

Monte Carlo is cheeky right from the get-go. We see a wedding. Everyone sings of happiness and sunshine, but the reality is miserable rain and a missing bride. An early song’s lyrics lampoon its singer without him even realizing. Music is put to gestures. Another song, “Trimmin’ the Women” is so sketchy, but so delightful. I’ve only heard it once but it’s in my head as I type this. The songs are short and spiffy, mirroring the film’s overall snappy pacing. Then there’s the meta-finale where Buchanan and MacDonald watch, in suspense, as an uncannily familiar opera unfolds below them. They await their cues, anxious to learn how their own melodrama will conclude. “It’s a silly story, only possible with music”; art wittily interacting with art. Monte Carlo is packed with what we expect of Lubitsch; sophistication, loaded innuendos, Jeanette MacDonald in lingerie, and the temperament of the most divine cream puff ever baked.

“Beyond the Blue Horizon” number showcases innovation (not to mention that the song itself was a huge hit). There’s an introductory segue; shots of trains, blowing whistles, chug chug chug. The sights and sounds of trains are incorporated into the song’s identity. Then we see Jeanette MacDonald’s Countess Helene on the train; singing, daydreaming, and looking out into her unknown future, when suddenly the song expands its reach. The camera looks out into the fields where dots of village people take part in a unison chorus. In Monte Carlo, music reaches farther than a stage and a room. Music goes beyond performance and its immediate characters. This is a new and boundless filmic world, where anyone can be brought into its musicality.

three good friends 13

Die drei von der Tankstelle (aka The Three from the Filling Station or Three Good Friends (Germany / UFA / Thiele)
Though I liked it considerably less (the three men really grated on me), Die drei von der Tankstelle, even more than Monte Carlo, is the truly innovative musical of 1930 (this puts aside the groundbreaking Under the Roofs of Paris, which I’m not re-watching for this project). This film was huge in Germany. The biggest film of the year. Bigger than The Blue Angel even, Germany’s first talking picture. It was also banned by the Nazis in 1937. The self-assured expertise shown by director William Thiele is startling. Rhythms and songs repeat throughout in cyclical fashion. The first minute features montage editing, a declaration that this will not fall in line with the often static storytelling of its time. Another song links two separate spaces together, a feat that 1932’s sublime Love Me Tonight is often credited with. Lilian Harvey’s character has a signature sound, her car horn, announcing her entrances and exits. And at the end it even breaks the fourth wall, with a “Why are they still here?” (the audience) inquiry prompting a last-minute finale.

I’ll focus on the Bailiff’s song to close out this write-up. The film starts with the introduction of the three happy-go-lucky friends (Willy Fritsch, Heinz Rühmann, Oskar Karlweis) returning home after a trip abroad. Immediately upon their return, the Bailiff (Felix Bressart) arrives with some movers to inform the friends of their bankruptcy and to confiscate their belongings. The song takes place in the midst of this. The Bailiff sings, the friends react, the movers take their stuff away; all through music. As I’ve said in other capsule reviews for 1930, this all sounds simple, but for the state of musicals in 1930, this is insightful and forward-thinking stuff. Its got a rare multi-dimensional quality. During the song, the camera is not presentational, but at an angle that focuses inward, not outward. The song is not shot like a performance; it doesn’t feel projected out into the audience, existing for our benefit. How can I explain it? During the song, everybody and everything is interacting with someone or something else onscreen. There’s even miniature flying furniture!

ooooStreet of Chance and For the Defense (US / Paramount / Cromwell)
William Powell and Kay Francis appeared onscreen together six times (I’m not counting Paramount on Parade, since they don’t appear in it together) from 1930-1932. Films #3 & 4, Street of Chance and For the Defense, establish their first complete iteration as co-stars. What I mean is that these are two William Powell films with Kay Francis in important supporting parts (she plays a long-suffering wife and a long-hopeful girlfriend). Their last two films together, Jewel Robbery and One Way Passage, reflect Francis’s 1932 stardom by putting Powell and Francis on equal footing. 1930 was a huge year for Kay Francis. Starting in film just the year before, she was all over screens in 1930, appearing in ten films total. Within these films she moved from second fiddle vamp to flexible female lead. New Movie Magazine’s “1930 Screen Review” singled out Francis as one of the two “Most Promising Feminine Personalities”.

I’m reviewing these together because they are two of a kind, 65-minute films directed by John Cromwell. Both take a while to get going. First, the films environment is too-thoroughly established. Then we’re introduced to Powell’s seemingly all-powerful place within said environment. In Street of Chance he’s a gambler on top. Everyone respects him, trusts him; what he says goes. Without question. His Achilles heel? He desperately wants to keep his brother (Regis Toomey) from falling into the gambling racket. In For the Defense he’s a defense lawyer on top. Not respected by his peers, he uses outlandish means to win cases in the courtroom. His Achilles heel? Kay Francis. In both films, he does something bad to do something good. He makes a sacrifice that leads to his downfall. One ends in death, the other in jail.

These films helped confirm William Powell’s newfound fame in the era of talkies. His delicious quick-rhythmed baritone is exactly the kind of voice that succeeded during sound’s key early days. While many actors fell from grace during 1929-1932, William Powell’s career reached maturation. His voice exudes confidence and ultra-competence. His roles moved from dastardly villainy to men who are a step ahead. Men whose occupations require keen smarts and persuasion. Men who, whether detective, attorney, or gambler, are unmistakably great at what they do. It’s a voice that pulls off the tough combination of seedy altruism needed for both these films.

Of the two I prefer Street of Chance. For one thing it features a young Jean Arthur. It also pulls no punches by the end. The stacking of cards against Powell is delicate and filled with a far more palpable and investing doom. And there’s an unseen level of implied violence that looks ahead to the ending of a much more famous film that would be released just a year later; The Public Enemy.

 

Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #9-12)


In my first capsule review post for 1930, I covered Let Us Be Gay, Ladies of Leisure, Murder!, and Anybody’s Woman.
In my second capsule review post for 1930, I covered Liliom, King of Jazz, The Bat Whispers, and Paid.

follow thru

Follow Thru (US, Schwab) 
I just finished reading Richard Barrios’s A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, and am steadily working through the musical subseries of my 1930 watchlist. The majority of the book details the initial explosive–>burnout wave of the movie musical, from 1928-1930. The ubiquitous popularity of musicals in 1928-1929 quickly gave way to oversaturation. By 1930, audiences and critics were outright disdainful of any musicals coming their way, their success and subsequent failure so instantaneous it left all studios in the lurch. Countless productions, both meager and grand, were destined to collect dust, be reworked, or suffer forgettable fates. There are a myriad of reasons for the early sound musical-as-poison revolt, both obvious and delicate. The clash of the national mood, severe oversaturation, lack of rural appeal, block-booking fatigue, copycat tactics of backstage tropes (the same movie was being made ad infinitum), quantity over quality, etc.

This drop-off also left swaths of performers (not to mention songwriters), whose careers were being built and cultivated within the once surefire cushion of the musical, hopelessly adrift (I’ll list some of those folks in my What I’ll Remember post). Often hailing from vaudeville and theater, their Hollywood fame came and fell in the spurt of a year or so. Baritone Lawrence Tibbett is a major example from 1930. Marilyn Miller is another. Follow Thru’s stars, Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers and Nancy Carroll, don’t quite fall into that category. These were major stars of their time (Carroll was arguably the most-loved star of the early 1930’s); stars who weren’t defined by appearing in musicals (Rogers’s most famous role was in 1927’s Wings), but both were invariably hurt by the sudden expiration date of film musical’s first wave.

All of this preamble is to say that Paramount released Follow Thru, like so many others, at the wrong time (in September 1930). It fared better than some others of its kind; reviews were fine, box office was fine; fine, fine, fine. It certainly had the well-established pull of its stars going for it. There was no revival of interest over the decades, and it was long believed to be a lost film. But a print was found in the 1990’s and restored by UCLA.

I’m going to try to explain the particulars of my immense like for Follow Thru. There’s that overused phrase ‘pure cinema’, and Follow Thru made me think of an entirely different and less dramatically applied use of the term. Follow Thru presents a bygone gateway into the early musicals potentiality for simple delights. There’s no sobriety here, but there’s also no extravagance. In Two-strip Technicolor, this is bright, effervescent, aggressively young stuff. Tons of films epitomize Hollywood’s specialization in escapism, but there’s something a little different about Follow Thru. It hits a hard-to-describe sweet spot. It’s the particular success of its commonplace nature. Here is a musical about girl golfers, a film of modest scale with gentle charms, filled with lots of striped sweaters and dimples. Its core strength is that it operates under the guise of crushing sweetness, while underneath its got all the naughtiness of a sex comedy.

Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers has All-American boyishness to spare. Nancy Carroll has a Kewpie doll face, all rosy cheeks and headbands. These aren’t great actors, but they are exactly what this film needs, and it’s easy to see why they were so major in their time.

Zelma O’Neal and Jack Haley are the sidekicks, reprising their roles from the Broadway show. O’Neal belongs to the aforementioned group of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Hollywood stints. She had a very successful Broadway career before and after her time in Hollywood. She’s such fun. Zippy with a no-bullshit hunch. And she gets the only major production number of the film, “I Want to Be Bad”. Jack Haley on the other hand, is death itself. When’s the last time I’ve hated someone onscreen this much? His defining character trait is that his eyebrows go nuts when he’s around girls. So basically, he gets a boner on his face. It’s Woody Woodpecker’s laugh as a facial tick. And it’s horrifying. He is horrifying.

The out-of-place nature of the wonderful “I Want to Be Bad” number aside, the songs are integrated quite smoothly throughout. They don’t advance plot or character, but most musicals didn’t at this time, and they’re more directly woven into the story than you’re likely to see in 1930. It’s all kept very simple, starting with a two shot and widening out at the end for some broad movements or dance step.

It’s the Little Things:
That naughtiness! Characters talk of going “where the bushes are thickest”. Carroll says to Rogers “Talk rough to me Jerry. I love it”. There is a whole sequence with Jack Haley and Eugene Pallette sneaking into the girls locker room to steal back a ring. They come up with hand signals. They pretend to be plumbers. The girls are all in various stages of undress. It reaches a perfect note of anarchy so inspired I had to pause so I could work through my laughter.
– So, Thelma Todd’s rival character who happens to be a widow. How did her husband die? I want her backstory!
– This is the second film from 1930 that has featured a Vibrating Belt Machine. The first was Ladies of Leisure.

fast and loose
Fast and Loose
(US, Newmeyer)

Fast and Loose is an early practice run for what would soon become the screwball comedy (thank you Miriam Bale for bringing this film to my attention!) (also note that Preston Sturges is given credit for dialogue). Its got spoiled characters, flirtatious spats and clashing courtship, a ruse, and class consciousness. In fact, it’s got a class-as-obstacle reversal. By the end it’s the working class romantic partners (Charles Starrett and Carole Lombard respectively) of the wealthy Lenox siblings Marion and Bertie (Miriam Hopkins and Henry Wadsworth) that can’t imagine lowering themselves to a lifetime with their spoiled mates. They are the ones with the objection, and furthermore, Rich Father Lenox (Frank Morgan) completely agrees that his children don’t deserve spouses this decent! This situation only comes up in the final ten minutes, but it’s a fun spin on the normal ‘my family doesn’t approve’ conflict (a la Ladies of Leisure).

Though we get the luxury of seeing Marion’s love interest in a bathing suit on multiple occasions (so much thigh), 75% of Henry Morgan’s (Starrett) dialogue is about how women are the absolute worst. Marion says she hates him, many times, many ways, but of course she’s falling hard for his misogynistic charms. Miriam Hopkins, and the film’s moderate pizzazz, makes this courtship undeniably fun. Fast and Loose is, among other things, the feature film debut of Miriam Hopkins. She already has an impressive handle on her particular screen persona. The best I can do to describe it is a clipped flightiness combined with a spoiled and fiery capricious nature. She sells her reluctant but overboard infatuation with Henry with a handful of amazing line deliveries. “I’m sorry”. Two simple words, but the distinct hilarity she wrings out of them represents the epitome of Vintage Hopkins.

Carole Lombard shows up in an early role but she’s suffocated by the propriety of the part. The first half, in which Marion and Henry flirt over stuck cars and nighttime swims, is considerably more enjoyable than the second half. All major players eventually merge at a nightclub under a potentially anarchic set of circumstances, but Fast and Loose doesn’t have the panache, or really the ambition, to make much of it.

It’s the Little Things:
– Paramount made Fast and Loose. Paramount also made Follow Thru. YOu can hear the latter film’s “We’d Make a Peach of a Pear” in the background of one scene.

Screen Shot 2015-08-06 at 11.31.30 PM

Romance (US, Brown) 
My least favorite of the 1930 films I’ve written about so far. In it, a bishop (Gavin Gordon) looks back on an early experience with love that goes nowhere. It isn’t tragic (though it’s treated as such), and it doesn’t even have the weight of feeling individually formative for the character. Gavin Gordon is downright laughable as a romantic co-lead for a woman as inscrutable as Garbo. Romance is the doldrums, folks. It’s a quintessential example of an early sound film that is all posturing, all talk. Oh, the talk. Its melodrama plays out through proclamations made with creaky archaic dialogue. Greta Garbo (who, with nothing to work with, is actually quite wooden here) spends all her time philosophizing about love. If you’re wondering what watching this movie feels like, take this piece of exchange and stretch it over ninety minutes:
“Well, do you see my flowers here?”
“You’re crushing them”
“Oh, what does it matter? They were born to die”

big trail

The Big Trail (US, Walsh)
This is going to sound really hyperbolic and dramatic, but I’ve honestly never seen a film that looks quite like this. There’s a reason for this; it was the first major on-location outdoor sound film (the first sound film shot outside a studio was Walsh’s previous In Old Arizona) and was shot on a short-lived 70mm format developed by the Fox Film Corporation called Grandeur (aka Fox Grandeur). Films would have to wait over two decades for the promise of widescreen to come to fruition. The world wasn’t yet ready for Fox Grandeur. Theaters had just been converted for sound, and yet another conversion investment was nowhere near feasible nor desirable. So you see, the reason I’ve never seen anything quite like this is because, from this era of filmmaking, there is nothing else quite like this.

Nothing that survives anyways. The Big Trail stands alone. The Grandeur prints of Song O’ My Heart and Happy Days are lost. Other competing widescreen formats like MAGNAFILM and VITASCOPE existed for the same blink-and-you’ll-miss-it period of 1929-1930, but, again, almost all widescreen prints for these few films are gone (The Bat Whispers is the rare example of a 1929-1930 widescreen film that survives in both its 35mm and 65mm versions). Not only is The Big Trail an outlier in its format and survival, but it’s easily the most ambitious widescreen project of the time. The production was a costly behemoth; shot all over the American west (primarily Montana, California, Wyoming, Arizona, and Utah), with countless extras and animals, and for an inordinate length of time.

The overwhelming scale is constantly present. For one thing, the extras are everywhere at all times. Extras in the foreground. Extras in the background. In support of the film’s core, they are everywhere, in every scene. The Big Trail may be populated by stories of revenge, romance, and comedy, but none of them matter. They’re just the needle. But the thread, the thing that does matter, is the collective journey. The building of community doesn’t start when the settlers reach their destination; it starts en route. The omnipresence of the extras never lets you forget that. everyone you see walking in and out of the frame, everyone onscreen, character or not, has put everything on the line with this endeavor. They are traversing the Oregon Trail’s all-too-real hardships, and they are doing it together.

The photography by Arthur Edeson is decades ahead of its time. I sat and watched in a constant state of awe. The scope of the image is all-encompassing. You get a rare sense of the West’s staggering vastness. Most impressive is the painterly quality of the thoughtful framing, groundbreaking early use of deep focus, and the complex compositions which so often incorporate multiple planes of staging and movement.  The Big Trail looks far into the future with its frontier tale of the past.

On a final note, I remember Karina Longworth mentioning how drop-dead gorgeous John Wayne is in The Big Trail during an episode of her “You Must Remember This” podcast. I even googled it after listening and thought “damn“. But actually watching him in this? It was his first starring role, and he isn’t exactly good, but that wooden charm makes him rather endearing. And good or not, you cannot take your eyes off of him. Give it a try. You’ll fail.

Capsule Reviews: 1930 Watchlist (Films #5-9)


In my first capsule review post for 1930, I covered Let Us Be Gay, Ladies of Leisure, Murder!, and Anybody’s Woman. That post can be found here.

liliom 5

Liliom (US, Borzage)
There are two kinds of spaces in Liliom. The first is inside the carnival. That mockup hallucinatory carnival made of miniatures, dazzling lights, and bustling sounds. It’s a magical space where anything can happen, but only if you keep up. The second is anything outside the carnival, most notably domestic spaces. The carnival is always visible from the outside but the outside is never visible from within. The interiors are spacious, barren, minimalist, surrounded by gaps of frustrated silence. There is a clear delineation between the two. All this to say that Frank Borzage and his collaborators at Fox go to great length to make theatricality modern, presenting a weird vision of fantastical artificiality that easily transitions into the equally weird metaphysical final act. (Let me also take this moment to say that I am a huge fan of early cinematic depictions of the afterlife. By far the most alluring period for this kind of story.)

At the end of Liliom, the Chief Magistrate (H.B. Warner) says this of what he has witnessed: “It’s touching. It’s mysterious”. Simply and succinctly, that’s also Liliom. Think Peter Ibbetson mixed with more overt expressionism. But this is a story about two people who should not be together, but can’t not be together. This is a film that ends with a speech about, to put it bluntly and without context, domestic abuse being okay if it comes from the person you love. But the tragedy of that, and it, are so genuinely and oddly moving. Because this decree of sorts is true for Julie. Liliom is told through a romantically fatalistic lens. Fatalism in the apparent wrongness of the couple. Julie’s (Rose Hobart) only other romantic option is a carpenter named Carpenter who speaks in monosyllabic monotone. He is seemingly alive for the sole purpose of asking Julie (for years and years mind you) if she is free and interested (“No, Carpenter”). This is also a film that resolves with this statement; “The memory of you makes them much happier than you ever could”. Talk about brutal. But Liliom is about the messy complexities of individual truths. The unchangable and unswayable.

Rose Hobart is perfect for the part of Julie, though the film swallows her whole by the second half (standout deathbed scene not withstanding). Her eyes have a sharp directness as she communicates her undying love for Liliom through that tunnel vision stare. Her unshakable need to stay by this whiny asshole is seen with a kind of nobility. At the very least it’s seen without judgment. As for Charles Farrell, well… From what I’ve read, audiences apparently adjusted fine to hearing his voice, but let me be the first to tell you it is rough. He sounds like one of the kids on Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island. Close your eyes and you’re back in the schoolyard with the head bully. His Liliom also walks like Popeye, though that bluster is a pronounced character trademark.

The technical achievement and formal ambition of Liliom are two of its defining characteristics. This was the first film to use rear projection, and its use of miniatures is woozily magical. Borzage uses space so well, in part by utilizing blocking and emphasizing body language. The camera has the mobility of a sophisticated silent. Take the feverish moment where Julie and Marie (Mildred Van Dorn) first enter the carnival. The camera actually deserts them, so eager it is to explore the place itself. (I’ve been, and will keep, mentioning camera mobility in these 1930 films. I don’t mean to suggest that camera movement equals higher quality filmmaking, but in 1930 it is a clear and easy sign of formal ambition as studios, technicians, and creative personalities attempt to establish a visual language for talking pictures)

Notes:
– So this is where “Carousel” comes from! I’d eventually like to see that and other adaptations of this Hungarian play (most notably the 1934 Fritz Lang version), not least because it will be sure to illuminate this one.

– Liliom is so quick to kill himself. It’s kind of absurd. Equally absurd? The notion that Liliom is the first person to be given a second chance. Really? This moron?

– The “Look out, look out the dumb police are on your trail” song is now something I sing to myself.

– Of course this movie was a financial (and somewhat critical) failure. How could it not be? How do you even market something like this? It doesn’t fit into any box.

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King of Jazz (1930, Anderson)
King of Jazz was the first of the revue craze of 1929-mid 1930 to enter the planning stage, and the last of the major efforts to be released. It went hugely over-budget (which is abundantly clear while watching), and was released at the wrong time. By the time it finally hit theaters, audiences were thoroughly ‘revued’ out. I hardly have anything to compare it to, but it is said that King of Jazz stands out from others of its kind in every way. Paul Whiteman and his orchestra are the center from which a series of musical numbers and skits revolve. His nickname, the title of the film, seems ridiculous because it is, but also keep in mind that jazz in this time period has a much broader implication. Think of how ‘pop’ is applied today.

Universal threw everything, and I mean everything, into this project. And it’s kind of a must-see. Surely one of the weirdest movies to come out of the Golden Age of Hollywood, it’s also the most elaborate and audacious spectacle film I’ve seen from the early 30’s. It features the first Technicolor cartoon, a shrunken orchestra marching out of a box, a giant larger-than-life scrapbook, ghost brides, the world’s longest bridal veil, extravagant mobile sets, superimposed images and related special effects, and, in what must be the scariest image in 1930’s cinema, Paul Whiteman as a winking moon in the sky. And the whole thing’s in Two-Strip Technicolor to boot.

The conceptual center of the impressive “Melting Pot” finale is what you might guess; promoting diversity while completely whitewashing a convoluted ‘history of jazz’. The pointed absence of African Americans is unsurprisingly everywhere. The one time African culture makes any kind of appearance is the prologue bit to the “Rhapsody in Blue” number, at once breathtaking and troubling. Dressed in Zulu chief garb, dancer Jacques Cartier stands on an oversized drum for a stage. His projected silhouette is made giant on the wall behind him. He begins to dance with direct ferocity. The eroticism of it is hypnotic, but the sexual nature of the thing reeks of the blanket exoticism so often depicted through ‘Otherness’.

King of Jazz works because the Universal team and director John Murray Anderson (Paul Fejos also contributed at some point before leaving) understand that there are different kinds of spectacle. There’s the special effects spectacle, which comes in all forms throughout here. There is also the music-centric spectacle. An early scene features copious close-ups of — not even musicians playing their instruments but something even more up close and personal; instruments being played. Another scene takes a different approach by capturing the interplay between a band and its components. Without cutting, the camera keeps up with the music by quickly panning over to each soloist. Finally, there is the grand scale production spectacle, and boy does it deliver on that front.

Though his rotund self has a welcoming energy, Paul Whiteman seems quite the random figure to construct a film around. But it falls in line with the early sound period trend of bringing in band leaders as well as talent from vaudeville and theater in order to give them film vehicles. I loved this movie. Even when it’s boring, it’s not, if that makes sense (I realize it doesn’t. Maybe one day I can describe this sedate sensation). It moves along at such a clip, and its sheer audaciousness coupled with genuine spark makes this a “seen to be believed” kind of film. It’s also beautifully, and I mean beautifully, photographed (Ray Rennahan, one of the film’s three cinematographers, was an innovator in the development of three-strip Technicolor). King of Jazz also reminds me that I have a substantial hard-on for Two-Strip Technicolor.

Notes:
– Bing Crosby’s first screen appearance! He shows up as one of the Rhythm Boys. He was originally slated for a solo number but an arrest after drunkenly crashing his car prevented that from happening.

– There are really lame 30 second skits by Universal contract players sprinkled throughout (some of which feature explicitly sexual punchlines). Though I loved the one set at an all-ladies newspaper.

– “Rhapsody in Blue”: First of all, according to author Richard Barrios, Universal may have paid upwards of $50,000 for the use of this piece. Also, the number is an all-blue one, though I’m not sure how it got like this because Two-Strip can’t pick up blue.

– Universal was also on the cusp of another colossal, and much more successful, effort; All Quiet on the Western Front. It even gets a shout-out here!

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The Bat Whispers (US, West)
What an exceptional experience seeing a 1930 film in 65mm (The Big Trail, which I haven’t watched yet, also falls under this category). The Bat Whispers is a mystery, yes, but the air here is ripe with two other genres; horror and comedy. Something that struck me about this is the way it successfully balances some tricky tones. There is a slight threatening undercurrent coursing through the film. It mostly takes place in one location, but the house is cast in shadows, and there’s a nice depth of setting that hints at what’s hidden. A masked intruder named The Bat, an entity that famously served as one of Bob Kane’s inspirations for Batman, is known to be lurking around the house for most of the film. Disguising his voice, he omits a wholly unnerving shadowy scrawl. A late scene featuring Una Merkel stuck in a hidden room with the Bat quite honestly gave me the willies.

And then the comedy of the thing! As characters tiptoe around in the dark, carefully treading with their different agendas, The Bat Whispers also proves to be light on its feet. It has a gentle comedic air, often aiming for soft laughs (can’t win them all though; a perpetually frightened character named Lizzie grates very quickly). All the tropes you can imagine are here and then some, contained by surprising energy and foreboding.

The Bat Whispers stays put once we get to Cornelia’s estate. So it uses the largely silent first ten minutes for striking formal ambition, particularly in the creative ways it introduces key locations. It also features a very early twist ending! After the film ends, Chester Morris comes out and pleads that the audience not spoil the ending for others. And in such a tongue-and-cheek way too. An eccentric note on which to end an eccentric film.

Notes:
– I really enjoyed Chester Morris doing a weird mix of dapper and dastardly. I so prefer this Chester Morris over the Chester Morris of The Divorcee.

– Features the Laganja Estranga of movie detectives.

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Paid (US, Wood)
Paid is a touchstone in Joan Crawford’s career. This was a part for Queen of MGM Norma Shearer but Joan, the ultimate self-promoter, rallied hard for this once Norma discovered she was pregnant before filming began. She long ached to move beyond lighter fare of the Our Dancing Daughters variety and establish herself as a heavy dramatic actress. Starting with Paid, Crawford gradually moved away from her flapper persona and into more refined and challenging work. And it’s a good thing she started a career evolution when she did. Between changing times and the enforcement of the Production Code, the flapper persona would soon be outdated, and actresses primarily known for those kinds of roles would have nowhere to go.

Paid has a promising premise. It’s got a prison film crammed into its first ten minutes. It then sets itself up as 80 minutes of Joan Crawford slapping everyone in the face with the law and getting sweet sweet revenge on her former boss by wooing his son. And all that happens. But the second half insists itself into empty melodrama by focusing on the aftermath of a deadly crime, imploding its premise instead of exploring it.

Notes:
– Marie Prevost!!! I’ve noticed that both of the 1930 films I’ve seen featuring her contain scenes where her body jiggles for the camera. I wonder if War Nurse will also have something of the sort.

Paid has lots of zingers:
“Wise as a tree full of owls, that’s me”
“Oh Mary, don’t be so 1890”
“It’s that coin that makes them so sassy Cassidy”
My favorite is “Four years ago you took my name and replaced with with a number. Now I’ve taken that number and replaced it with your name”.

– There are moments in Paid where Joan looks eerily like Sigourney Weaver. I never noticed it before but the proto Sigourney vibes here are off-the-charts.

 

Top Ten By Year: 1978 – 10 Honorable Mentions plus Grease


I just started a second job so it’ll take a little while for the final Top Ten By Year post for 1978 to be written and go up (and then on to 1925!) Accompanied with that post will be a full list of the 1978 films I’ve seen and a Blind Spots list. For now, here are my ten honorable mentions. I always list and briefly write about five honorable mentions in my Top Ten By Year posts, but for 1978 and 1992 desperate times called for desperate measures. I’ve fallen in love with so many 1978 releases, which, of course is a great ‘problem’ to have. The fact that Violette Noziere, Pretty Baby and Long Weekend couldn’t even make the honorable mentions post shows how crowded this year was.

These 10 (plus Grease!) films are in alphabetical order

FTV = First Time Viewing
RW = Rewatch
LTF = Long Time Favorite 

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Autumn Sonata/Höstsonaten (Sweden, Bergman) (RW)
I figured that Ingmar Bergman’s mother-daughter showdown was a sure bet for my final ten. The Magician made my 1958 list even though I far prefer this over that. But 1958 was a different template with different scales.

Autumn Sonata could also be called ‘The Meeting of the Bergmans’. This was the one and only collaboration between Ingmar and Ingrid, and it carried a finality for both (it was the director’s last exclusively theatrical release and the star’s final feature film appearance). The familial chamber drama pits mousy neglected daughter Eva (Liv Ullman) against her famous pianist mother Charlotte (Bergman) after a lifetime of pent-up resentment and stunted emotional baggage. The toxic and frayed dynamic shows itself through the film’s bifurcated halves. An initial impenetrable barrier of niceties and separate stirrings gives way to one fateful evening when Eva’s charges against Charlotte spill out in hyperventilating fits of anger; the director’s penchant for inescapable close-ups carries through all.

Ullman plays the final half  of Autumn Sonata as if possessed by the distilled anxiety of her child-self; the mere presence of Charlotte triggers an uncontrollable summoning bigger than herself. Eva’s collapse into memory is so total that presentational single-image flashbacks make their way into the film. Gradually, the accusations against Charlotte become more and more vague, unformed, and even off the mark. By the end, we’ve seen something possibly irreparable, almost delusional, take place. Changed but not changed.

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Dawn of the Dead ( US/Italy, Romero) (RW)
For a horror film so universally worshiped, it’s easy to forget how peculiar the squib-filled Dawn of the Dead really is. It’s these peculiarities that so strongly lure me to it. The ragtag family of four. The zombies with an unsophisticated chalky blue tint on their cadaverous skin. The inevitable reclamation of consumerist domesticity as a mode of denial. The boldly goofy shifts in tone. The irreverent and hassle-free shopping montages. And spearheading all of this is the headstrong smoothness of Ken Foree as Peter, quite possibly my favorite male horror flick protagonist. This is George Romero at the peak of his powers.

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Drunken Master (Hong Kong, Yuen) (FTV)
1978 was the year Jackie Chan’s career catapulted to stardom with Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow. Replacing Bruce Lee as Hong Kong’s top box-office star, Chan molded his early screen persona as a scrappy underdog with acrobatic prowess, “comically exaggerated panic”(Bordwell, “Planet Hong Kong”), and an ever-resourceful reliance on slapstick. In the ludicrously fun Drunken Master, he plays the not with assured capability, but with a deer-in-headlights expression and the illusion that he is frantically grabbing any props within reach to defeat his opponent. Watching him feels like a sort of onscreen miracle, and every time I see a Jackie Chan film I marvel at his genius anew.

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Eyes of Laura Mars  (US, Kershner) (RW)
Soft focus, red herrings, confounding twist ending, voyeurism; this is what American giallo looks like. This is also what pop sleaze looks like. Fashion photographer Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) unwittingly sees through the eyes of a killer whose crimes eerily mirror her controversial work. Laura’s work is surface-level provocation, using artfully arranged violence to sell product. Funny thing is, the nature of her work and the film itself are kind of inextricable from each other. There’s some commentary about the public reception to Laura’s photographs, questioning her responsibility to people who use the images she creates as violent inspiration (something else I love about this film is that it’s a horror flick about adults with full-fledged careers). There’s a perhaps unintentional level of self-reflexivity going on here (who knows; scripted by John Carpenter yet produced by Jon Peters, a man devoid of self-awareness), but regardless the film playfully inverts itself in multiple ways, such as when Laura, seeing through the eyes of the killer, is looking at herself as the next victim, as prey. The ultimate voyeuristic conundrum.

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Grease (US, Kleiser) (LTF)
In fourth grade we were assigned to make plaster masks for an art project. I made mine of Stockard Channing’s Rizzo. Sure I made her look like a melting hunk of cheese, but the dedication was there. The biggest money-maker of 1978 is a seamless blend of generations, a venue for peppy dressed-up youth to play out. It was released at just the right time, riding off the 50’s revival of American Graffiti from several years earlier and John Travolta’s newfound and entirely justifiable super-stardom. If you want to know what Grease is, just look at the climactic “You’re The One That I Want” number. Grease is Danny and Sandy’s DNA’s combined, a rare breed of wholesome filth that surely contributed to its mass appeal, feeding off the need for a hit musical that wasn’t dour in content and tone or cultish in origin and transgression.

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Halloween (US, Carpenter) (RW)
John Carpenter wastes no time bringing deep-focus compositions and inquisitive camerawork into the daytime streets of ‘Haddonfield, Illinois’, creating an unassuming town scaffold where peaceful suburbia ought to be. Michael Myers is a stark specter, his blank white presence is direct and his sneakiness is presented directly, entirely without sneak. The camera is on a constant swinging pendulum, roving between Myers and our trio of girls. We are never with either of them. Not truly. Halloween occupies the space between predator and prey.

One of the most successful independent films ever made, Halloween established John Carpenter as a defining directorial presence moving into the 80’s and kicked off the (while being far from the first one) the fad of slice-and-dice slashers. But Halloween has an atmospheric restraint, and is far more interested in sustaining and encircling the unknown; qualities that can’t be found in its offspring. Prelude aside, it takes fifty minutes before someone is killed. That’s a long way from the kill-sex-kill-break-nudity-kill structure that slashers would become known for.

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In a Year of 13 Moons (West Germany, Fassbinder) (FTV)
Rainer Werner Fassbinder made In a Year of 13 Moons in response to his former lover’s (Armin Meier) suicide. Opening with a beating, and text that tells of the fated tragedy of the cosmos, Fassbinder underlines that Elvira (Volker Spengler) is destined for doom. And it only goes downhill from there. It’s a high bar to clear, but this is Fassbinder’s most confrontational, openly hopeless work, a fusion of his evocative melodrama and his more anarchic leanings. When Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop” casually plays in the background of a lengthy scene, there is a conscious effort to make us feel off-center in our own skin. But nothing compares to the butchery sequence, in which uncompromising graphic footage of animal slaughter is coupled with Elvira’s increasingly frenzied pitch of a voiceover (think Willy Wonka on the boat or Judge Doom’s toon voice), adding up to a nauseating visual and aural assault the likes of which I’ve never quite experienced.

If I could only pick one performance from 1978, Volker Spengler as Elvira would be it. He makes Elvira and her dangerous acquiescence and her comfort in the familiarity of abuse, all too human and frustrating (Elvira can be a very troubling character when looking solely through the lens of trans portrayals but that’s a whole other conversation). Demure and devoid of self-regard, his face begs everyone and anyone to give her something, any reason to keep going. Nobody does.

Killer of Sheep
Killer of Sheep

Killer of Sheep (US, Burnett) (FTV)
A major work of American cinema. A mosaic of evocative naturalism that observes, empathizes, and communicates through the mundane routines of life in the Watts area of Los Angeles. Intimately caught between narrative and free-form, adults and children, and yet immovably rooted in the experience of impoverished black America.

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Krabat – The Sorcerer’s Apprentice/Čarodějův učeň (Czechoslovakia, West Germany, Zeman) (FTV)
Krabat was the penultimate film from seminal Czech filmmaker Karel Zeman. His far-reaching influence as an animator has inspired the likes of many, and after seeing this it’s easy to see why. In this dark-fantasy fairy tale, cut-out animation is assembled with carefully placed pieces of live-action background. The effect is a richly textured aesthetic where the stiff and often immovable expressions of the characters reflect the constrictions of the poor boys of the story, who are lured into forced labor.

Krabat is about conquering the oppressive and seemingly preternatural force of tyranny, a  tyranny that even conquers the mode of storytelling for the evil sorcerer is the only character given a speaking voice. The story is told by adult Krabat’s narration with the (even in its darkest turns) straightforward remove of a fairy tale which further forces the viewer to rely on the directness of the fixed animation. Krabat and his fellow captive apprentices learn to fear the cycle of life, and the inevitability of what is to come based on the season. Emphasis is given to the beauty of the seasons; at the inescapable and isolated mill, what should be a comfort has been curdled into something of a constant harbinger. And of course, it is love which must conquer all.

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Thank God It’s Friday (US, Klane) (FTV)
Just so you know, disco music and the ‘One Crazy Day/Night’ scenario are two of my favorite things to find in a film. Put them together? Time capsule movie gold. Everyone wants in on the discotheque where The Commodores are set to perform with dance contest in tow. A wide variety of characters fleetingly bounce off each other throughout. Highlights include Jeff Goldblum as a sleazy ladykiller, Debra Winger as a clumsy gal, a young Terri Nunn (!!), and Otis Day as ‘Wrong Way Floyd’ who you should never put in charge of your instruments. If the film had a little more shape to it (with this many story threads, it should never feel like the film is killing time) it might have made my final ten. As it is, it’ll have to settle for being the kind of film I can randomly put on to enjoy again and again.

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An Unmarried Woman (US, Mazursky) (FTV)
Jill Clayburgh prancing around in her undies, giggling uncontrollably in the throes of foreplay, and performing with a rare in-character spontaneity. All this and more support Paul Mazursky’s dramedy about a woman trying to rebuild a life after her husband abruptly leaves her. There is a fascinating knowingness and a concerted effort to tap into the what the ‘modern woman’s picture’ may look like that is by turns outdated and still shockingly relevant. As Erica tries to figure out who and what will define her new life, Mazursky displays an immense care in the particular wants, needs, struggles, inner life, experiences, sexuality, and empowerment of his heroine.  

Top Ten By Year: 1958


For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year column:
I pick years that are weak for me re: quantity of films seen and/or quality of films seen in comparison to other films from that decade. I am using list-making as a motivation to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-driven way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on personal ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’. I’ve done 1935, 1983, 1965, 1943, 1992, and now 1958. Next I’ll be doing 1978.

1958 was a curious year for my Top Ten By Year project. I had seen 14 films from 1958 before all of this. Not much compared to the other years of that decade. When I said I picked 1958 for this, everybody proclaimed “Such a great year!” And it is, in the sense that every year is a great year in film if you know where to look. But the reason that 1958 stood out to me so much when I was trying to decide on a year from the 1950’s is because I was ambivalent on many of the ‘classics’ I had already seen. And three months later, that’s still the case. I’ve already mentioned it in my What I’ll Remember post but it bears repeating. I flat out do not care for The Hidden Fortress; it’s my least favorite Kurosawa film by a mile. Elevator to the Gallows is a taut genre exercise but nothing more than a first-timer testing the waters; impressive but not involving. I appreciate Cairo Station’s importance but didn’t take to it. Okay, I like Mon Oncle and Big Deal on Madonna Street, I’ll give you that. Ashes & Diamonds is masterful, but not in my wheelhouse. Outside of Nicholas Ray’s unshakable popularity among cinephiles, I’m perplexed for the love that people have for Party Girl. And Equinox Flower is richly pleasant but there’s a wall between the two of us. That’s a lot of films I just listed right there. And I’m sure anyone reading this loves one or more of the above and is shaking their head right now. So the question is; what am I left with? In my efforts to plumb the depths of what 1958 has to offer, I came up short. A lot of what I watched was merely, well, okay; engaging in context or in spurts, or in how they fit as part of the larger whole, but rarely in their own right. There was a lot of divergence in my own preferences and 1958 as a whole (interesting that 1957 though, contains so many favorite films of mine).

So while this is a very strong group of ten (I absolutely treasure all of these films), unlike other years, it was not too difficult to secure a spot this time around, at least comparatively. Though there are five very distinctive films not on the list that I wish there was room for. I’ve now seen 44 films from the year. In addition to first time viewings, I re-watched 11 of the original 14 films I’d seen for this project. I’ve also realized that my list this time is almost entirely US films, which is sort of embarrassing but it’s just the way the cookie crumbled this time. In writing this post, I find myself touching on the particular quality of actresses, even more than normal, and what it is that the women of 1958 bring to the films they are so central to.

We’re right at the tip of some major cinematic movements that are soon to start. Tawdriness is welcomed in increasingly growing measures. Noir is gasping its last corrupt breaths. The musical is on the downslide. European ennui is catching on. Auteurs are communicating cynicism through genre. Stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age hang on like aging apparitions. Authentic and naturalistic emotions make up the new. And at the forefront, theater has taken over cinema; The Adaptation Craze is in full operating mode.

Top Ten By Year: 1958 Poll Results
Movie Music Mix: 1958
What I’ll Remember About the Films of 1958: A Love Letter

Biggest Disappointments:
The Lovers
The Blob
Cry Terror!
Attack of the 50ft Woman
I Want to Live! (re-watch)
It Happened in Broad Daylight
The Matchmaker
The Haunted Strangler

Blind Spots:
Brink of Life (could not get hold of this though I tried, oh how I tried), A Time to Love and a Time to Die, The Horse’s Mouth, Fiend without a Face, Ice Cold in Alex, Run Silent Run Deep, No Time for Sergeants, South Pacific, Ballad of Narayama, The Long Hot Summer, Cowboy, The Last Hurrah

TOTAL LIST OF FILMS SEEN IN 1958: (bold indicates first-time viewings during research, italics indicates re-watches during research):
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Anna Lucasta, Ashes & Diamonds, Attack of the 50ft Woman, Auntie Mame, A Movie, Le Beau Serge, Bell Book and Candle, The Big Country, Big Deal on Madonna Street, The Blob, Bonjour Tristesse, Bridges Go Round, Cairo Station, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Cry Terror!, The Defiant Ones, Elevator to the Gallows, Equinox Flower, The Fly, Giants & Toys, Gigi, The Goddess, The Haunted Strangler, The Hidden Fortress, Horror of Dracula, I Want to Live!, It Happened in Broad Daylight, The Last Day of Summer, The Lineup, The Lovers, The Magician, Man of the West, The Matchmaker, Mon Oncle, Murder by Contract, The Music Room, Party Girl, “Robin Hood Daffy“, Some Came Running, The Tarnished Angels, Terror in a Texas Town, Too Much Too Soon, Touch of Evil, Vertigo

Honorable Mentions:
The Music Room (India, Ray): Music as symbolic wealth and obsolete extravagance haunt a decaying mansion and its owner who refuses to acknowledge change.

Some Came Running (US, Minnelli):
The prodigal son accidentally returns home, torn by himself and the two sides of town, each represented by a lady. Poor Shirley MacLaine; those last five minutes are brilliant and devastating.

Man of the West (US, Mann):
The Straw Dogs of studio westerns, and a volatile, sickening and at times unbearably tense piece of filmmaking. Damn do I really need to catch up with some more Anthony Mann films.

“Robin Hood Daffy” (US, Jones):
Um, Daffy Duck as Robin Hood. Need I say more? “Ho! Haha! Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge! Spin! Ha! Thrust!”

The Lineup (US, Siegel):
Think of this as being tied with my #10. With San Francisco location shooting even more notable and far less appreciated than Vertigo, this starts as a dull police procedural and morphs into something episodic, dangerous, and off-kilter.

Key:
FTV: First Time Viewing

RW: Re-watch
LTF: Long-time Favorite

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10. Gigi
(US, Minnelli) (RW)
Some Came Running, Vincente Minnelli’s other 1958 film, may have more meat on its bones, but Gigi is home to personally preferable Parisian frills. The many reasonable criticisms leveled against it play heavily into why I find myself so smitten with it. It is, overall, an admittedly inconsequential story. It’s a musical with nary a dance to be found (and let’s be honest, no real singing either). The protagonist is an impossibly rich and handsome man (Louis Jourdan) who we are meant to empathize with, because, wait for it, he’s bored (besides “It’s a Bore”, another of Gaston’s songs is the petulant “She is Not Thinking of Me”). The story is conflicted over what we expect of women, and then resents them for achieving just that. It has none of the pizzazz or freedom of the director’s soundstage musicals and none of the propulsion of his melodramas.

So; why Gigi? It’s difficult to say. I’d argue that all of the above works, at least to some degree, in its favor. It has a deceptively stilted charm, made up of Minnelli’s sumptuous obsession for dressing-the-frame paired with sparse camera movement. When you look closer, what at first seems oppressive is actually freeing. The actors are given ample room to move about the elaborately constructed spaces or locations, leaving us to appreciate the rich precision of the interiors (That red room! That yellow room! That pink room!), or the way the imaginary is transported into legendary Paris locations. With one simple pan, Maxim’s becomes a gossip funhouse where space curves and endless planes of speculating people blur into one another.

Gigi is a mix of innocuousness and sly implications, and just like Gigi (Leslie Caron) and Gaston, the two constantly play off each other. Sister makeover musical My Fair Lady may have the better songs, but give me the light playfulness and balanced business of this over the stuffy lifelessness of the latter any day. How can I not fall for a film that has Maurice Chevalier misremembering history with Hermione Gingold against a soundstage lit setting sun?

Anna Lucasta
9. Anna Lucasta
(US, Laven) (FTV)
As written, “Anna Lucasta” (inspired by” Anna Christie”) centers on a Polish-American family and an estranged daughter-turned-prostitute returning home. But it was originally performed and adapted by the American Negro Theater, opening in Harlem with an all-black cast in the 1940’s. Fifteen years and one Paulette Goddard film later, an adaptation of the African-American production was released.

Nobody talks or writes about Anna Lucasta. Nobody seems to have seen it (it’s available on Instant Netflix fyi). Those who do write about it do so for its historical value and seem underwhelmed by what’s actually there. It was barely advertised and also dismissed upon release.

I love Anna Lucasta. For one, it’s a needle in a haystack to see an all-black cast during the studio era (fuck, any era) in something other than a musical. Most importantly, it’s damn good. Cinematic? No; Arnold Laven’s direction is something tepid. It’s seen as a detractor, possibly a deal-breaker, when a film isn’t able to shed its stage origins. But there’s a particular way theater grabs hold of its audience from the get-go, using personalities and everyday dynamics that are old hat for the characters but brand new to us. Anna Lucasta fails in the directorial department, but it’s got this quality in spades.

It also has Eartha Kitt, Queen of the World; watching the camera take to her serpentine presence is a privilege. And then there’s Sammy Davis Jr, character actor Rex Ingram as Anna’s deeply troubled father, and a host of offbeat characters rounding out the central family. Though the film prefers a romantic interest  it’s impossible to get behind (who among us actually wants Anna with snoozefest what’s-his-name over the one, the only, Sammy?), Anna Lucasta has an immediately welcoming energy in which we the audience are invited into the well-worn dynamics of this family as Anna herself is begrudgingly and deviously welcomed back into the fold.

The Magician Bergman
8. The Magician
(Sweden, Bergman) (RW)
Hiding among all these adaptations is Ingmar Bergman, wrestling with the very idea and purpose of cinema and his relationship to his audience.

A story of versus; the illusion of truth versus scientific explanation, acknowledging transparency versus willful submission. It’s pretty clear which side Ingmar Bergman is on in this case of absolutes. Bergman asks to what end humiliating the creator serves. In The Magician, stuffy authoritative detractors, led by Gunnar Björnstrand, clinically dissect a form of illusion for being the very thing that it is; illusion. Thus, they are seen as useless, seeing only facade without bothering to think on why the facade exists. Those that submit know they are doing so, whether to be seduced like the sex-starved maids downstairs, or to extract a source of faith or entertainment.

The Magician has a curiously hodgepodge structure. Starting with an enchanted trek through in unforgettably fairy-tale forest as photographed by the great Gunnar Fischer, we then devote whole sections to bawdy sex comedy, elusive two-person conversations and horror. Stringing these sections together is a series of humiliations committed by the stingy non-believers onto Bergman’s alter-ego, the worn-out masked Vogler (Max von Sydow). The Magician is in part about how we mask ourselves and the protection that it provides us. What affected me most about the film was how Vogler reveals himself in the final half (pretending to be mute he finally speaks and sheds his physical disguise), only to be rejected by nearly everybody.

Murder-7
7. Murder by Contract (US, Lerner) (FTV)
An assassin who doesn’t like guns. Prepping over doing. Kicking your feet up and seeing the sights. Those who’ve seen Murder by Contract know how singular it is (Martin Scorsese is chief among them, citing this as a major influence), that it zags where others zig. Removed from almost everything going on in American cinema at the time, it’s a B-movie sunken in its own mellow groove even though the hit job in question has a steadily decreasing deadline. It’s impossible not to think of what Jim Jarmusch would be doing nearly thirty years later. The sparse budget constraints are accompanied by a mulling eccentricity, and a keen sense of humor. Yes, this is one of those films that could easily be described as ‘cool’. Claude (Vince Edwards), our unknowable assassin, is in full control of the existential narrative, even as he struggles to complete his task on time. We’re just happy to be along for that smooth, smooth ride.

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6. Auntie Mame
(US, DeCosta) (RW)
Why is it that the happy-go-luckiest film from this group is the most difficult to write about? Auntie Mame doesn’t impress so much as it does slap you silly with celebration. Don’t look too hard at those encrusted jewels and turbans or it all falls apart; luckily, the devil-may-care surface is the thing. It’s got a daring lack of conflict. When something major does happen, like, oh, say, poverty or death, it’s treated like a mild speed bump in the jovial banquet that is life. Director Morton DeCosta sets the stage, literally, bringing theater into film and sectioning the episodic structure by incorporating divisive flourishes like punctuated fade-to-black stage lighting.

Reprising her Broadway role, Rosalind Russell’s uproarious high-wire performance (which stupidly lost an Oscar to Susan Hayward) is no small part of what would eventually define Auntie Mame as a seminal camp work. She plays to the camera, going a mile-a-minute (distracting us so much that we almost don’t notice, but definitely do, the cringe-worthy racist caricature that is Ito), and never loses sight of Mame’s humanity, shown through loyalty and protectiveness. Her constantly evolving interior decorating and costumes are by turns lavish and kitsch. As much as it is a fuck-the-haters film about living life to the fullest, it is also about expressing and flaunting oneself through appearances (which is of course assuming everyone has the social status necessary for this kind of living; like I said, don’t look too hard). Devoid of irony, yet self-aware, Mame’s wealthy bohemian and nonconformist ideologies set up indulgent spectacles in presentation and character. I suspect that a film like Auntie Mame was a healthy and mild way for the general public to engage with eccentricity and alternative living in 1958. It offers a non-threatening form of bohemia while tossing in taboo markers like lesbians, unwed pregnancies and excessive casual drinking on the sidelines. It’s made up of whims, moving at Mame’s swift tempo to the next thing and the next, always in transition. Does time fly by too quickly when living life this way?

With sustained conflict-free lightness and class-based exclusivity, films like Gigi and Auntie Mame may be largely unfashionable and easy targets for present day audiences, but they are indicative of the kaleidoscopic universes that Hollywood was still capable of creating in this dwindling stage of the studio game. And I love them both dearly.

touch-of-evil-1958-orson-welles-scene-02
5. Touch of Evil (US, Welles) (RW)
This refers to the reconstructed version of Touch of Evil, put together by editor and audio engineer Walter Murch, producer Rick Schmidlin and critic Jonathan Rosenbaum according to Orson Welles’s famous 58-page memo to Universal which details the ways in which (through both editing and sound) the studio chopped up his vision.

There are only a handful of films that make me want to take a shower afterwards. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is one. Touch of Evil is another. To see it is to feel the muck of it all in your bones. Every single thing in Welles’s film about border corruption in no man’s land, from macro to micro, is designed to keep us permanently off axis. The second it starts, with that revelatory three minute plus take, it’s like we’re part of a harshly lit carnival attraction. Everybody keeps losing each other, and the combination of characters is constantly shifting. The conventionalized dialogue is delivered like a relay race, with everybody passing the baton to their ever-changing neighbor. And the streets, even when occupied by people, always feel deserted.

Of course, Touch of Evil wasn’t the exact end of film noir’s Golden Age, but it does make for a hell of a send-off; the genre is flayed open, innards spilling out. Uncompromising in every way, all the latent and pent-up sleaze of decades past rises to the top. At the center of it all and at the edges too, is Welles as Captain Hank Quinlan. While watching him, I couldn’t help but think of a line from Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis speech in Jaws, spoken with that drawl; “you know the thing about a shark, he’s got…lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eye”. With all that extra padding and makeup, Welles looks like he’s made out of wet clay, sputtering around like a wind-up toy, jerking and lumbering this way and that. He muscles his bloated visage into every frame he can, brandishing Quinlan’s nefarious qualities on the outside. Considering that Orson Welles was a legitimate fear of mine for two years during my adolescence (seriously; I couldn’t go into Blockbusters or look through magazines; guidance counselors got involved), it’s no hyperbole to say that Hank Quinlan was, at one point, my literal worst nightmare. Watching Touch of Evil today reminds me that my fear was completely valid.

Kim-Novak-Collection_DVD_R1_Disc2_Bell-Book_03215
4. Bell Book and Candle
(US, Quine) (RW)
Shot after Vertigo, Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak reteamed for Bell Book and Candle, a supernatural comedy that retains Stewart’s obsession with Novak, but trades all of that torment for eccentric frothiness. In the film, Novak casts a literal spell on Stewart. Gillian works for herself, and owns her manipulations, regrets, and the circumstances that lead to her decision (I also love the novelty that someone like Kim Novak is convinced she needs a spell to make someone fall in love with her). Where Vertigo posits Novak as otherworldly through Scottie’s eyes, Bell is about her predicament, breaking through the actress’s distinct brand of impenetrability as well as explicitly engaging with the notion of Novak as feline.

Some may call Bell Book and Candle slight. To me it’s got a brand of lounging whimsy that doesn’t exist today. Sure, it gets up to indulge in some mishaps, but this is primarily a film defined by its quirks (and an alternative Christmas film too!). Witches and warlocks are portrayed as harmless kooky beatniks who blend in with the New York City crowds, and hang at a club called The Zodiac. Jack Lemmon is Gillian’s bongo playing brother and Elsa Lanchester’s her flighty aunt, and she plays it exactly the way you’d imagine.

1958 is the Year of Novak, and her Gillian Holroyd is a hallmark for those of us who appreciate the kinds of presence you can’t buy. Her airs, her clothes, her cat named Pyewacket, her voice like warm honey, and those formidable painted eyebrows. It’s sort of sad that the film systematically strips away her exoticism (her store is even transformed into one of fragile femininity; glass flowers), but what can I say? I’m moved by her conflicting fears and desires to be human, to allow herself to love and be loved. It’s just disappointing that she couldn’t have all this and be a badass witch too. But it gives us a happy ending for Jimmy Stewart and Kim Novak, and who among us could balk at such a resolution?

The-Tarnished-Angels
3. The Tarnished Angels
(US, Sirk) (FTV)
Douglas Sirk transports the stock players and the baggage of melodrama from the previous year’s Written on the Wind into desolate black-and-white territory with a longtime dream project; an adaptation of William Faulker’s Pylon. It’s about post-WWI identity but feels dislodged from time. Trading a suburban setting for death-defying airshow attractions, a pilot (Robert Stack), his wife (Dorothy Malone), and mechanic (Jack Carson) all live in a sort of lost haze where resignation reigns and communication is vacant. For a how-did-I-get-here-and-why-do-I-stay narrative with so much dialogue and reminiscing, this is all about failure to communicate. And when the unspoken finally is spoken, it is too late. Catharsis and loss are all that’s left.

We enter the trio’s (plus son Jack) lives via Rock Hudson’s reporter character named Devlin. James Harvey writes about Hudson’s performance in his excellent book Movie Love in the Fifties, and it’s not exactly a kindly assessment. I don’t agree with him. Hudson’s boyishly masculine persona works for him, not against him, precisely because it goes against the character, complicating everything about him. If he can’t quite pull off the selfish ‘human interest’ pursuer, torn between observing and participating, it only makes the performance more atypically shaded. Instead of a gruff worn-down alcoholic who pokes his nose where it doesn’t belong, we get a man whose looks hide a self-loathing and constant tension derived from his place within the narrative. In short, Hudson makes Devlin less of an immediately recognizable type, and more of a pretty wayward scavenger hunting for scraps.

Dorothy Malone’s (the film’s true MVP) LaVerne understandably runs hot and cold on him. One the one hand he’s trying to help smooth things over. On the other hand; who the fuck does this guy think he is? He barely knows this woman and thinks he can break in on these three tethered souls, judge them, and then, however sincerely, get involved in their affairs. Back up Rock Hudson; back the fuck up.

Douglas Sirk may have had an arduous experience working in black-and-white Cinemascope, but the film doesn’t show it. He and cinematographer Irving Glassberg create sprawling and glowing images that emphasize alienation and the solitary corners of shared spaces. Doom is everywhere. A shadowy specter appears after two characters kiss. Nightmarish parade masks lunge at us throughout. In truth, I find more resonance in the windswept hauntings of The Tarnished Angels than some of Sirk’s color-embellished stories of suburban pulp.

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2. Bonjour Tristesse
(US, Preminger) (FTV)
I had been looking forward to seeing Bonjour Tristesse more than anything else on my watchlist. Turns out my hopes were not unfounded. After Otto Preminger launched Jean Seberg into uncertain fame with the much maligned Saint Joan, he put her through his tyrannical ways again with an adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s steamy and scheming coming-of-age novel. Teardrop stained minimalism courtesy of Saul Bass segues into the dour partying of a black-and-white prologue which in turn gives way to the sunny blue skies of the French Riviera. Of course our young Cecile (Seberg) would see her life in the kinds of extremities that alters film stock.

Almost half of the films on this list take on the personalities of their protagonists in some way. This being Cecile’s story (and her narration), Preminger heavily plays into the adolescent angst angle, so much so that at times we even unfairly balk at Anne’s (Deborah Kerr) seemingly obstructive manner. The bond that Cecile has with her father (David Niven) contains far more, and far less, than an underlying incestual vibe. They are, first and foremost, party companions in a world of their own carefree design. Third parties are welcome on the unspoken understanding that it’s all temporary. Not because father and daughter are inseparable (although they kind of are), but because Raymond isn’t built for monogamy. And responsibility is resolutely not welcome on the premises. Preminger makes Seberg a constant presence within the frame, especially when it’s just Raymond and another woman. She’s always somewhere to be found; after all, she’s part of the package.

Besides the potential end of a lifestyle, the threat of Anne’s presence is even more significant in the way it throws Cecile into self-critical thinking. She begins measuring herself against Anne, looking at herself in the mirror, yelling at herself, cursing herself. She is seeing herself in a way she never has, and she doesn’t like what’s looking back.

An easy case could, and should, be made that David Niven’s Raymond is worse than Cecile. At least she can hide behind misplaced passion, the selfishness of privileged teenage life, and eventual remorse. He however, is passive and remote in a story that theoretically revolves around him. Anne and Cecile are the active parties. They battle over someone who is always present but never fully aware or concerned with the extended showdown going on right in front of him. So when we hear him speak to Elsa (Mylène Demongeot) as overheard by Anne as overheard by Cecile as overheard by us (the specific dialogue of which is, critically, not in the book) it is a shocking and cruel moment; a gut-punch to the heart with irrevocable residual impact.

Jean Seberg is a source of constant fixation for me, a mix of the old and new functions of stardom. New because audiences didn’t quite know what to make of her or her modern look (though Godard did after seeing this film); that boyish frame and pixie blonde hair. Old because Preminger’s attempts to launch her career embodies that classic studio way of thinking in that yes, skill matters, but essence is the true key. Seberg’s abilities are limited, yet she’s intoxicating to watch. There’s a flatness in her voice that works in tandem with the character. She may not have it but she has it, and the latter is what counts.

A couple of times during the black-and-white sequences, Cecile looks at the camera, past us, past anything. That final shot is one of self-loathing; she assesses herself a final time, furiously rubbing that emptiness in as far as it can go. There’s a gaping hole where communication ought to be but isn’t. She and Raymond are trapped in a routine of debauchery. Neither have the maturity necessary for confrontation, so they will remain stuck with the tired routine they had once coveted so dearly.

VertigoMadeleine1

1.Vertigo (US, Hitchcock) (LTF)
There was never any surprise or doubt that Vertigo would be my number one. It’s the film that overtook Citizen Kane as Sight & Sound’s Greatest Film of All Time. It obviously won my Top Ten By Year poll by a landslide even with a juggernaut like Touch of Evil in there. And it’s the second Alfred Hitchcock film to have the top spot on one of my Top Ten By Year lists. The other was my first post for this ongoing project. The year was 1935 and the film was The 39 Steps. Shadow of a Doubt also featured at #2 on my 1943 list.

What do you even say about a film like Vertigo? What strikes me most upon revisiting is it’s the rare film (if anyone can think of others do let me know) that manages to retain its sense of eerie discovery. However well we know the narrative, its almost supernatural hold remains. The ‘mystery’ goes beyond story; it’s pumping in the blood of the thing. It is here that Hitchcock, the definitive deliberate filmmaker, makes what must be his most assured work. While watching, I slowly realized that the entire film consists of two-person scenes (visiting the bookshop with Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes) and the courtroom are the exceptions and even those…). This thread of narrow focus makes its endless calculations an uncommonly intimate experience.

Vertigo is constantly folding and peering in on itself, presenting mirror images of illusions, the act of watching and following (often accompanied by dissolves) never more to the forefront in a Hitchcock film. We watch, we watch Scottie (James Stewart), we watch Scottie watching. Hitch is Scottie, we’re Scottie and we’re Hitch, the director laid bare like never before or since. Under an auteurist lens, Vertigo is something like the ultimate catnip. He’s not hiding behind any defense mechanisms, no acerbic humor. We’re in the deep end of fetishistic obsession; transformation, blondes, the threshold of death, the list goes on. A woman’s eye becomes something out of a Spirograph, the fairer sex a gateway to a destructive black hole.

With that key perspective change, Scottie and us go our separate ways, while a window into Madeleine/Judy (Kim Novak) is cracked; something Scottie never gets. She looks at the camera, begging us to understand and forgive her. Her words, intended for him, never reach their destination. The landmarks and streets of San Francisco function as something recognizably concrete amidst all the slippery pieces, visual cues that set the stage for the final third as Scottie doubles back through his own story in a desperate effort to recreate all he has lost. His damaged pride and blindness to his weaknesses sends him into a frenzied tailspin that goes so wrong so quickly. All we can do is wince and watch with knowledge of the truth while he becomes more and more unreachable.

The key to Vertigo, at least for me, is the crucial fact that ‘Madeleine’ is an invention. Even outside of that fact, Scottie is in love with a backlit profile, never a person. ‘Madeleine’s’ nonexistence only further underlines that. He needs to be needed. We see her through his point of view constantly; as a wilting flower, a painting, a puzzle, a ghost; again, never as a person. In line with the story fed to Scottie, she moves as if possessed. She comes with a hazy kind of light. She is immediately positioned and spied upon as an object among either delicate or timeless objects. Madeleine among the flowers, Madeleine as one with the garden, Madeleine in the museum. Kim Novak’s undercurrent of unease about her own perfection plays directly into her performance. There’s a scene where she sits in Scottie’s living room after a faked attempted drowning. It is their first formal meeting. Her hair is in a loose ponytail and she is wearing a red robe with white polka dots. The scene is an anomaly for both Novak and her character. The ‘Madeleine’ costume hangs in the laundry room (the dress is often made visible in the scene). Her face is open and bare; it’s the only time she isn’t made up to be someone else. Neither Madeleine nor the brash Judy, this scene is Kim herself.

I have to end this with a special shout-out to Midge, one of my favorite characters in film and to Barbara Bel Geddes for making the longtime hanger-on the most relatable, lovable and individualistic that type has ever been.

Top Ten By Year: 1943


For those unaware of my Top Ten By Year column:
I pick years that are weak for me re: quantity of films seen. I am using list-making as a motivation to see more films and revisit others in a structured and project-driven way. And I always make sure to point out that my lists are based on personal ‘favorites’ not any notion of an objective ‘best’. I’ve done 1935, 1983, 1965 and now 1943. Next I’ll be doing 1992.

I’m going to keep this intro short because my write-ups ended up being way longer than I’d anticipated. It’s been so insightful spending time with 1943. Hollywood during WWII is endlessly interesting, if not so much for the output as a whole (though there’s lots of great stuff as always), than for the extratextual and historical elements. I was able to learn a lot about the era; about the portrayal of war before and during, how nationalities, their various struggles and how our enemies were represented for better or worse, the relationship between the government and Hollywood, and the image, propaganda and narratives that were being sold to the general public during an uncertain time of crisis. I highly recommend reading Thomas Doherty’s “Projections of War” and this year’s “Five Came Back” by Mark Harris (surely the best book you’ll read from this year).

The ratio of films I’d not seen before research versus films I’d already seen is quite different from other years I’ve done so far. While 4 of my 5 honorable mentions are new-to-me films, 8 out of the 10 on this list I’d seen before, and I revisited all of them for this list. This is also the most ‘typical’ list of the ones I’ve created so far. Most of these are quite well-known, at least within film circles.

1943 saw debuts from major filmmakers such as Akira Kurosawa (Sanshiro Sugata), Robert Bresson (Angels of Sin), Vincente Minnelli (Cabin in the Sky), and Luchino Visconti (Ossessione). This was my most exhaustive year in terms of re-watching everything I’d already seen from 1943. In particular I was able to get a lot more out of I Walked with a Zombie this time around, a film that left me unenthused when I first saw it several years ago. For all the polished message films about virtue and American democratic values, there’s a lot of grit, fatalism, and darkness to be found. You just have to watch the Val Lewton-produced films from RKO to see that.Lewton used the freedom of low-budget quickies as a template for innovative atmosphere and despairing messages. A new kind of horror happening right under everyone’s nose.

Everyone is looking for a culprit. There’s a lot of finger-pointing in 1943. Just look at Day of Wrath, The Ox-Bow Incident, Le Corbeau, and to lesser degrees Hangmen Also Die! and The Leopard Man. There were other ways of dealing with wartime in film as well; by not dealing with it. Already by 1943 audiences would be starting to get weary of the corny rabbles of patriotism, looking for pure escapist fare. The prime example of this is The Man in Grey, setting Gainsborough trend for tailor made bodice-rippers targeting female audiences on the British homefront. Being a big animation fan, I also took the time to watch a ton of cartoon shorts spanning mostly from Looney Tunes to Tex Avery.

Now to pay tribute to five films that did not make my final cut, all of which I highly recommend seeking out if you haven’t seen them already:

Angels of Sin (or Angels of the Streets) (Bresson) (France): Renée Faure gives an engagingly stand-out classical performance of conviction in Robert Bresson’s debut (his pre-formalist days) which equates nunneries and prison as places of protection and possible reform.

The Constant Nymph (Goulding) (USA): Rarely seen for seventy years due to legal rights, this flagrantly romantic film features a twenty-four year old Joan Fontaine uniquely capturing the awkwardness of adolescence and giving a career-best performance as Tessa. In many ways a companion piece and warm-up to Letter of an Unknown Woman with Fontaine playing a teen, tragic overtones, musician male leads, and the connectivity of music bringing it all together.

The Man in Grey (Arliss) (UK): A deliciously nasty piece of work, setting the standard template for the Gainsborough melodrama, a subset of films wildly popular with British female audiences during WWII for their aggressively escapist lasciviousness. Made me realize fully that I like my melodrama gnarled and perverse. Margaret Lockwood does wicked better than anyone.

Meshes of the Afternoon (Daren/Hammid) (US): A landmark experimental short and a touchstone of feminist filmmaking. Cyclical and symbolic, it represents the psyche in such unsettling and inventive ways. Teiji Ito’s music, added with the approval of Deren in 1959, is integral; the perfect companion of aural unfamiliarity to Deren’s images.

This Land is Mine (Renoir) (US):
Narrative propaganda that works, rife with talky preachiness that manages to strike a chord by stressing the importance of words and ideas against Nazi occupation. Charles Laughton’s transformation from mama’s boy coward to proud martyr is important, but George Sanders’s supporting arc as an informer and collaborator is even more important and resonant.

Biggest Disappointments:
Air Force
Cabin in the Sky
Watch on the Rhine
Jane Eyre
So Proudly We Hail!
Sanshiro Sugata
The Human Comedy
Lady of Burlesque
La Main du Diable

Blind Spots: (not exhaustive):
Portrait of Maria, Hitler’s Madman, The Song of Bernadette, Sahara, The Fallen Sparrow, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Journey into Fear, Hitler’s Children, Munchhausen, My Learned Friend, Destination Tokyo, Le voyageur de la Toussaint

Complete List of 1943 Films Seen: (bold indicates first-time viewings during research, italics indicates re-watches during research)
Air Force, Angels of the Streets, Cabin in the Sky, The Constant Nymph, Day of Wrath, The Eternal Return, Le Corbeau, Five Graves to Cairo, Flesh and Fantasy, The Gang’s All Here, The Ghost Ship, Hangmen Also Die!, The Hard Way, Heaven Can Wait, The Human Comedy, I Walked with a Zombie, La Main du Diable, Lady of Burlesque, The Leopard Man, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The Man in Grey, Meshes of the Afternoon, The More the Merrier, Old Acquaintance, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Seventh Victim, Shadow of a Doubt, So Proudly We Hail!, This Land is Mine, Watch on the Rhine, Jane Eyre, Lumiere d’ete, Ossessione, Sanshiro Sugata, Stormy Weather

Shorts:
“A Corny Concerto”, “Red Hot Riding Hood”, “Who Killed Who?”, “Tortoise Wins by a Hare”, “The Wise Quacking Duck”, “Der Fuehrer’s Face”, “Falling Hare”, “Dumb Hounded”, “The Aristo-Cat”, “Scrap Happy Daffy”, “Pigs in a Polka”, “Jack-Wabbit and the Beanstalk”, “Education for Death”, “Chicken Little”, “Reason and Emotion”, “Wackiki Wabbit”, “Porky Pig’s Feat”

bfi carl dreyer day of wrath dvd review 2950
10. Day of Wrath (Dreyer) (Denmark) 

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s first film after an eleven-year absence sees love regarded with corruption of the soul through religious persecution. This is material that in someone else’s hands might have read as rote or derivative. Its perspective is intimidating to parse through. My inability to get a grip on it guarantees its future value to me over the years. There’s an ambiguity to the proceedings as it suggests, through cross-cutting, that maybe Anne (Lisbeth Movin) does possess some kind of witchcraft (as in Ordet, higher forces or abilities are affirmed) as passed down by her mother. But it’s a separate issue; not placed in support of the religious persecution but seemingly vice versa, as if the power of suggestion initiates self-fulfilling prophecies. It complicates how we interpret the story, but not, critically, what happens within the story. In the end it doesn’t matter whether or not Anne has some unconscious power; the point is that that both possibilities would have led to the same place; Anne being targeted.

The pace is methodical and foreboding. Everyone moves with cautious intent. Anne is the odd one out (in many ways actually) intermittently trying to break out of the film’s rhythm with a hasty kind of half-prance. It’s a subtle and affecting way of showing how Anne has had the life sucked out of her before even having a chance to live, stripped down to devout duty. She comes to life as the film progresses, only to have it thrown back in her face. The softness of the birches contrasts the hardness of the austere interiors, with Lisbeth Movin’s face bridging the two by embodying both. As beautiful and alluring as the film is, it’s really Movin’s performance and general presence I connect with most in Day of Wrath. She has such a striking face, all archness and piercing eyes. Herlofs Marte (Anne Svierkier), a physical evocation of Anne’s mother, haunts the entire film after her fiery fate.

The Seventh Victim
9. The Seventh Victim (Robson) (US)
This was a film I liked enough the first time I saw it but it didn’t live up to what I was hoping it’d be. I felt it was marred down by extraneous characters, a flat romance, underdeveloped relationships/knowledge of past relationships, and a group of elderly Satanists that don’t feel threatening at all. This time, while some of those issues haven’t gone away, the message of the piece and what it turns out to be is downright audacious, casting only the kind of spell that Val Lewton’s RKO cycle can lay claim to. Mark Robson’s debut shows he can hold his own with Jacques Tourneur, having learned the ropes well from his editing work with him and Orson Welles.

The Seventh Victim plunges into the depths of melancholia, the inescapable pull of death. It’s a sort of horror film noir packaged in a detective story. Its philosophy, which Lewton admitted flat-out, is to embrace death. It’s a shocking statement, one that RKO only gets away with because the film wasn’t top brass enough for anyone to take notice. The Satanists are not the enemy. They are an empty placeholder, an unsuccessful attempt by Jacqueline (Jean Brooks) to find meaning within the darkness. They are similarly desperate, a mundane and hypocritically confused group. Jean Brooks, in an iconic role, dons a fur coat and jet black hair severely framing her face; protective shields against the world.

Kim Hunter, in her film debut, travels from the safe confines of echoing Latin and stained glass to the New York jungle. Her sisterly connection with Jacqueline is spoken of, never felt. Jacqueline is too far gone to the other side, their experiences too dissonant. There’s a real hopelessness to how little exists between them once they’re finally brought together, purposeful or not.

There’s a point midway where the story is plagued by unanswered questions and you think ‘what in the fresh hell is going on?!’. Like something out of the mind of David Lynch. On the surface it’s guided by Hunter’s search, but she and the film are actually guided by Lewton and Robson’s symbolic imagery; hanging nooses, locked rooms, and staircases. There’s even a pre-Psycho shower scene, but instead of murder, vital information is passed between women through curtains, shadows, and nakedness, lending to the lesbian undertones.

Jacqueline’s perspective takes over for the final twenty minutes, and it’s the film’s big takeaway. We realize Kim Hunter, the poet, and the husband have been a means to an end. Her famous walk through the streets, fleeing from her pursuer, is a walk of the mind. She resists but it’s futile. Her search for a light at the end of the tunnel is conveyed through the lighting, the unwanted bacchanal celebrations of a theater troupe her only undesirable out. And then there’s that profound exchange with Mimi (Elizabeth Russell), a dying specter who makes herself known at the very end. The scene stops me dead in my tracks. Mimi runs towards a last burst of life. Jacqueline limps resignedly towards death. They meet in the middle. The Seventh Victim may look like it’s about missing sisters and Satanists, but it’s not. To Die, Or Not To Die. That is the question.

The Hard Way 8
8
The Hard Way (Sherman) (US)
One of the best rags-to-riches showbiz claw-my-way-to-the-top yarns with older sis making sure little sis’s dreams of performing on the stage are realized. They rise up from an unhappy marriage, grey dowdy graduation dresses, and endless soot to contracts, furs and success.

Ida Lupino’s eye-on-the-prize performance is electric (though she apparently was not fond of her work here), constantly looking for ways out and up, unabashedly seizing upon questionable opportunities that present themselves, gradually unable to tell the difference between success and personal happiness. Joan Leslie is equally good, like a 40′s Jennifer Jason Leigh (with a dash of Larisa Oleynik?). She is increasingly torn and devastated, loyalty in check far past its expiration date.

And the two male counterparts, played by Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson, are just as engaging! Not something a lot of female-led films of 1943 can lay claim to. Paul (Morgan) sees through Helen and the two have a great dynamic as she tries to suppress feelings for someone who loathes yet admires her. Al (Carson) is an earnest and naive schlub whose pride and blinders prove too much. What I loved most about The Hard Way is the careful and complicated evolution between all four characters, with attention paid to who they are within themselves and in relation to each other through time as paths cross and double-cross. There’s a development in Act 2 that completely took me off guard. The direction and staging enhance our understandings of the character dynamics and includes visually stimulating and slightly surreal montage sequences.

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7. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell/Pressburger) (UK)
Are you starting to get a sense of how packed this list is?

It takes some time, at least I find, to get on the wavelength of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It’s a treaty on what it means to be British, more specifically in wartime. Between that and its microscopic deconstruction of societal rituals it can be hard to engage with it at first. Then it gradually becomes more attachable, and long after it’s over it feels like a warm blanket (especially when Deborah Kerr is onscreen) that drapes itself over you, that effervescent Powell/Pressburger touch. It’s not entirely a comedy, a drama, or a war film. It’s all three with dashes of fantasy and dreamlike flourishes, most notably Kerr’s three character performance as the evolving youthful woman through the ages, going in and out of the lives of Clive and Theo through the decades. Re-watching this and Heaven Can Wait for this list, it’s interesting that, despite their similarities, the former spans seventy years of life removed from history, and the latter spans forty years of history through people. It’s less concerned with how others are during war, instead asking how the collective British ‘we’ functions as a people during conflict. It’s patriotic, but not blind, swerving in more ways than one from what British cinema tends to be. It’s lavish and heightened, and also dares to feature a sympathetic German as a central character during WWII.

Speaking of Anton Walbrook, he’s such a favorite; one of the sexiest and most arresting actors to watch. Will someone just have an Anton Walbrook marathon with me where we watch all of the films? His speech, which serves as the film’s nucleus, is one of the most encompassing speeches I’ve ever seen. All in one take, almost two decades of personal history summed up in the afterglow of loss. He slowly summons the attention of everyone in the room, and of us. Powell films the speech all in one take, with an invisibly slow push-in. By the end, we’ve lost time from falling into Walbrook’s eyes and words.

Powell is brilliant at staging scenes; blocking and shot choices contain voluminous treasures. The beer hall scene is a perfect example of his precision. Everything, from the use of Technicolor to the film’s intricate structure, courtesy of Pressburger, is precise and dignified without being stuffy. The way time passes, with the big game hunting montage and the browsing of an intimate photo album, are by turns witty and weepy.

Traditional British values are mourned and tribute is paid to the importance of ritual by putting them front and center. Notice how we go through all the preparation for the duel only not to see it. But it’s not a simplistic ‘Remember the way things used to be’ story. We learn and see what Clive can’t; that right is not might. Unlike Clive, the film acknowledges the necessity of change for better or worse. Clive is always one step behind himself, realizing his love for Edith too late. You can clearly see the moment he realizes. It’s heartbreaking, especially because Edith has also been torn, looking for a sign from him. The scenes with Clive, Edith and Theo in the hospital are my favorites. A growing camaraderie and kinship emerges between the three, a bond that comes to exist again but in a much different form, and never fully regained.

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6. The Leopard Man (Tourneur) (US)

It’s the structure of The Leopard Man that leaps out at you, so ahead of its time, postmodern to the point where even today it’s still somewhat jarring to see a film led entirely by fate. Clo-Clo (Margo), oblivious harbinger of doom, brushes past the lives of eventual victims (thereby controlling the narrative) who we proceed to follow. The film has uncommon empathy for its victims, so much so that it dictates structure and content. These women are made human before death, given context and individual meaning.

The scenes of moonlit pursuit produce some of Jacques Tourneur’s strongest work. The most chilling moments? My vote goes to those immediately proceeding death when the pursuit stops and everything is still. The banging of the door and subsequent blood seeping underneath, the weight on the branch, the mirror closing and Clo-Clo’s desperate screams. Then there are Clo-Clo’s clickety-clacks, which we eventually recognize as the sound of death. The film neatly fits in with Tourneur’s fatalism. The fountain with its floating ball, guided and held up by something bigger than itself; not a higher being, but inescapable circumstance.

The killer’s identity is clear pretty early on, but it’s notably only when the first death occurs, the one committed by the frightened and threatened leopard, that Galbraith opens himself up to opportunity and urge. That “kink in the brain” addresses the makeup of a killer with animal instinct (as predator, not killer for sustenance or out of fear), connecting leopard and man thematically as opposed to the forced RKO title of ‘The Leopard Man’. The events may cause the central couple we repeatedly return to to ‘go soft’  but they cause Galbraith to go hard, giving in and letting go.

The Ox-Bow Incident

5. The Ox-Bow Incident (Wellman) (US)
It’s never a mystery whether the three men in the hands of a vengeful posse actually killed Larry Kinkaid. It’s clear they didn’t. The point is casting a judging eye at vigilantism, revenge for revenge sake, and the unapologetic out-for-blood mentality of an angry mob that swiftly ignores law. Relatively speaking, it’s an easy point to make. Just like the mobs themselves, films like this are never subtle. But The Ox-Bow Incident is a sort of marvel all the same. It’s pure emotive power is raw and kind of overwhelming by the end. The cumulative impact of injustice creeps up on you. The senselessness of it. And that Kinkaid isn’t even dead? Forget about it. It’s an unforgiving film; enraged and resentful.

It’s surely one of the most efficient films ever made. Clocking in at seventy-five minutes, screenwriters and filmmakers could still stand to learn a lot about storytelling from The Ox-Bow Incident. It manages to introduce and juggle about a dozen characters, all of them distinct, even those operating within caricature. They are one body broken apart into individual participants by the script. Gil and Art (Henry Fonda and Harry Morgan) are our entry point. They start out with their own hang-ups and are gradually drawn into the scenario that unfolds before them. Fonda’s Gil is a despondent man, his character coming through strongly despite this not being his story. Anthony Quinn’s presence injects some commentary on racism; Juan is entirely unsurprised by the events. He knows enough about people, and the way he’s likely been treated in life, to know they won’t get out of this one. And Dana Andrews. Poor terrified Dana Andrews, openly scared of dying and of leaving his wife and kids. The camera crunches him in more than anyone.

William Wellman had to fight a long time for this to get made, the compromise being that Darryl Zanuck threw it into the cheap pile. The resulting artificial sets mandate Wellman’s direction. He shifts focus away from the flat landscape and onto people and their faces. Ugly, hankering faces. People are constantly crammed on multiple planes within compositions. It’s so claustrophobic, the camera creating boundaries for people who have none. The mob puts the men on ‘trial’ while the camera in turn puts the mob on trial.

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4. The Gang’s All Here
 (Berkeley) (US)

Busby Berkeley, taking on Technicolor, pushes the visionary of geometric extravaganzas as far as he, or anyone in the studio era, was apt to go. Color is used for grand elegiac expression, such as the “Paducah” under an encompassing lavender swirl that predates what An American in Paris would do with dancing and color eight years later. The camera, and the effects work, is periodically used to disorient, heightening our sense of movement and curiosity to a drug-inducing degree. Eugene Pallete’s disembodied head croaking out a song. A camera that arches and lilts over women holding sexualized bananas. The mere fact that a number called “The Polka Dot Polka” serves as a finale with women in purple outfits that look like futuristic workout gear holding neon-pink lit hula hoops.

It’s also, quite simply, a lot of fun despite a central storyline that can exhaust with boredom. Although it must be said that Berkeley himself seems to view it as filler. What makes up for this is that Alice Faye grew on me, that James Ellison is blissfully absent for the entire second act, and that their romance is amusingly resolved with barely a shrug, an afterthought that clearly doesn’t deserve center stage when there are polka dots to be had.

Carmen Miranda is Queen. It’s taken me this long to actually see her in a film. A lot can be said for the ways in which her nationality was used as a gimmick as well as a garish ‘foreign’ stereotype, but what about what’s actually there? How about the performance and the work and the fact that she was able to secure a spot for herself within the studio system where every other star also, it must be said, had a minutely constructed screen persona. Miranda is vibrantly hilarious here, with an innate sense of comic timing, over-the-top in every moment (not just when she has dialogue), with the English language locked-and-loaded as her plaything (notably mainly restricted to our idiosyncratic sayings, not the foundation of the language). To say she steals the movie is an understatement. Berkeley sets up a world where the more heightened the better; a world fit to hold and showcase Miranda at the center. She is the purest harbinger of future camp and drag queen aesthetic and performance in the 1940′s.

Charlotte Greenwood, hip society matron and proto-Marcia Wallace with high-swinging legs is another favorite.

Le Corbeau

3. Le Corbeau (Clouzot) (France)
A particularly unsparing look at humanity and our ability to turn on each other, Le Corbeau has been dirtied by history from the day it exited the womb. Made by the German funded Continental Films, Henri-Georges Clouzot was banned from making films until 1947 (lifted from its initial lifelong stamp). It was seen as Anti-French at the time it was made, it is now seen in a more Anti-Nazi light and more broadly an Anti-People light. The misanthropy is locked and loaded even though room is made for people to find each other and for the guilty to go punished.

Le Corbeau addresses the power, cowardice and impact of omnipresent anonymity in a small town that collapses like a house of cards as secrets are exposed within the community. Someone is watching. Everyone is being watched by one of their own. Dark humor is found in the recesses and hypocrisies of a town thrown unto upheaval. The power of the letters is constantly given weight by Clouzot. During a funeral procession, a letter is seen in the road by everyone who passes. Nobody will pick it up; they avoid it like the plague, acknowledging its hold on them through nervous neglect. There’s even a letter point-of-view shot as everyone steps around it, a child eventually picking it up. Then there’s the shot of the letter floating down from the rafters of the church. It’s a perfect, almost pitiful evocation of how beholden the townspeople are to their own secrets. The world Clouzot depicts feels so insular and gradually uncontrollable in its futility, most notably during a sequence in which the accused Marie flees from the crowd. Shots become exaggerated and canted, sound becomes chaotic and inescapable. It’s the film’s most blatant callback to German Expressionism.

Poison pen letters would suggest based on immediate assumptions, a female culprit. But it’s not, not really, and the women of Le Corbeau are an atypical group who flip-flop expectations at every turn. I love that Denise, presented as a supporting suspicious sexpot, is ultimately presented as good, even inheriting the role of romantic lead. Her physical ailment leaves her clamoring for sexual affirmation, a need to assert herself while simultaneously listless and feigning additional illness. The nurturing Laura, a woman who seems destined for better things, is at once duplicitous and a victim. The vengeful mother, executor of justice, takes matters into her own hands, and is the one to restore the natural order. How are we meant to feel about that final act? It’s up to us. The final shot sees her as a floating faceless figure, slowly disappearing down the narrow alleyway without a trace, leaving the crime scene in our dirty hands.

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2.
 Shadow of a Doubt (Hitchcock) (US)
Easily the film I’m most familiar with on this list, having seen it many times. More misanthropy! This time with Joseph Cotten’s Uncle Charlie. “Did you know the world is a foul sty?” Listening to him, he’s a kind of murderous Eeyore. The idealized duality, which Hitchcock emphasizes in many ways including how the two are introduced, that Charlie imagines between her and her uncle is completely shattered. It’s about two sides of the same coin, the innocuous (not just with Charlie’s small-town boredom but with how Joseph and his friend lightly but minutely discuss murder; it’s abstract and distant for them, a part of other people’s stories) going head-to-head with its opposite.

Shadow of a Doubt is also importantly about the nature of family, and what happens when the veil is lifted on someone you thought you knew; someone who you are bonded with by blood. Not only all that, but someone you put all your hopes and dreams into. This is where Hitchcock gets all the suspense; by understanding that the central tug-of-war is the discrepancy between who Charlie and the family think Uncle Charlie is and who he actually is. Visual and aural cues like the emerald ring, the waltz, and the newspaper are so the audience, we at the top of the information hierarchy, can brim with tension from start to finish.

Joseph Cotten is menacing as Uncle Charlie, seething with disgust all around. Cotten also lends a depressive edge to his performance, hinting at something unquenchable. There’s also a bit of sexual tension between the Charlies. Hitchcock and screenwriters Thornton Wilder (!), Sally Benson, and Alma Reville inject such salty eccentricity from top-to-bottom. This may be a thriller, but there’s so much trademark humor to be found (mostly character based) from Hume Cronyn offering Henry Travers hypothetically poisoned mushrooms, to the precocious Ann. Small-town life is gently poked at with a loving touch. The rug isn’t pulled out from under Charlie to throw her so-called woes in her face, but to make her appreciate the family she has right in front of her.

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1. The More the Merrier (Stevens) (US)
I’m just head over heels in love with this movie, which takes the then-serious housing shortage in Washington D.C during the war and makes a screwball comedy out of it! The More the Merrier marks George Stevens’s last foray into comedic territory. He left immediately after the film’s completion to join the U.S Army Signal Corps, and his experiences during the war would dramatically shift the kinds of films he’d be making thereafter. This is one of the sexiest romantic comedies of the studio era. In fact it’s damn near erotic. It hilariously scrutinizes how our trio in close quarters shares space from the sitcom-esque sequence with the hectic schedule, the crowded closeness of the premise, and Jean Arthur’s increasing loss of control in her own home.

Stevens often shoots from outside the apartment looking in, using the windows as frames within frames, closing the characters in with each other and using the same techniques to bring them harmoniously together whether they like it or not. This brings the audience into the equation, involving us in the intimacy between Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea. The three leads are magnificent, career-best work from all. Jean Arthur is smoldering through her character’s button-cute type-A way. Joel McCrea is impossibly sexy, the opposite of Arthur in his quiet flirtatiousness and at times childishness. Charles Coburn, in an Oscar-winning role, could have been a sentimental eccentric old coot, but the writing and performance make it so much more. The dynamics between the three are so organic and joyous to watch unfold, especially the way factions within emerge such as the antagonistic boys club versus their target Arthur.

And that eroticism I mentioned earlier between Arthur and McCrea? Oh, it’s there. Just look at the scene when he gives her the suitcase, his face close to hers, showing her all the compartments. Or the long take starring Body Language with the two strolling down the street. It doesn’t get sexier than this sequence folks. Like, I think I stopped breathing during it. It’s a dance between the two. He’s outright pawing at her, she’s being coy. What are they talking about? Is anyone even listening? I don’t even know how this all got past the censors, because once they sit on the steps he starting feeling her up, his hand obsessing over her face, neck, and shoulder. Mein Gott. Or that bedroom scene, with the camera bringing the two bedrooms together as they longingly lust after one another in their separate beds. The two actors have a special onscreen connection. In an early scene, the two dance in separate spaces with themselves, the camera linking them in their adorable awkwardness. Then in a later scene, the two sit across from each other at dinner with Coburn and Arthur’s fiancee. Sharing a private moment unbeknownst to the other two, they stare at each other moving their shoulders and body ever-so-slightly to the music. The sly cuteness of it all is too much.

But what about that ending? I’d love to hear what others think of it because it leaves me with a sad and peculiar taste. It uses the WWII movie trope of the quickie marriage and then settles the couple into a tired marriage with lots of Arthur wailing. That this is my favorite film of 1943, despite going off-center in its finish, goes a long way in conveying just how much I’m in love with this film.