SASY Wrap #6 – The Unwrapable Sassington

Because we love fun, we always try to shoehorn “SASY Wrap” into the subtitles of these roundup posts, but I’m guessing the reference here is lost on a lot of readers. It’s a reworking of The Unbearable Bassington, a short novel by the early 20th century British writer H.R. Munro, better known as Saki. Though not as good as his short stories, the novel is still a razor-sharp dig at British society — particularly upper-middle class society —  a comedy of manners with some real teeth and heartbreak. And that’s why it seemed so appropriate for this SASY Wrap, as Great Britain finally enters the picture with a bang. Nearly half of the 10 films we will discuss here are British movies that alternately question, criticize, and celebrate Britain. But it is not just the British who are ascendant in this period; in a welcome reversal from our last batch of 10, nine of the films below are not American productions (well, maybe eight and half depending on how you classify Once Upon a Time in the West). Nine of the films below were also made during the second half of World War II, showing that as the Nazis were being pushed back a new artistic flowering was happening across Europe. But before we get into all that, as tradition demands, our  respective (and for once quite different) rankings of the last 10 films:



1. Brief Encounter (1945) 1. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) 2. Day of Wrath (1943)
3. Day of Wrath (1943) 3. “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945)
4. Rome, Open City (1945) 4. A Canterbury Tale (1944)
5. A Canterbury Tale (1944) 4. Rome, Open City (1945)
6. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) 6. Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)
7. “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945) 7. Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944)
8. Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944) 8. Brief Encounter (1945)
9. Children of Paradise (1945) 9. Children of Paradise (1945)
10. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) 10. Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

S. – Our rankings are less in sync than usual and I do feel that in our sojourn through this batch of ten films some different elements have resonated with each of us. Brief Encounter seems a prime example given that it is my favorite from this set and appears close to the bottom of your ranking, J., somewhat surprising as I know you enjoyed David Lean’s portrayal of this Noel Coward play. For me it was the highlight of a very strong British showing. The chiaroscuro photography, the score and the wonderful performances brought a trembling, pulsating life to the repressed passion of straight-laced Laura and Alec.

Colonel Blimp came in at a very close second. After a soft start I was quickly engaged in the epic story that seemed to move with lightning speed through a lifetime, without leaving out the little details that tell you all the important things you need to know about a character. As a group, the three Powell & Pressburger entries were skillful studies of seemingly intimate tales that are fractals of a larger society. A hopeful and charming vision of Britain is woven through the different narratives and use of on-location shooting, without resorting to overt patriotism. Fortunately the Europeans were happy to balance things out with a little darkness. But before I go there what was your take on the Brit-fest, J.?

J. – I loved it. And I’ll explain why in a moment but I’d like to address our rankings first. This is far and away the most we have disagreed on a set of 10 films so far, but I don’t necessarily think it has much to do with a severe difference of opinion so much as this being a very strong group of movies. I can say with certainty that I absolutely loved the films one through eight in my rankings, and found a great deal to admire in Children of Paradise — so the difference in quality between the top and the lower regions of my list  isn’t so great in my mind. I will, however, refrain from going into our mutually agreed last place film because life is too short.

As for the British movies, the three Powell & Pressburger films really resonated with me greatly. I had seen two of them previously and had really enjoyed them during that first viewing, but having dipped back into their oeuvre once more I am in love. The mix of whimsy, amazing cinematography, inventive and unusual storytelling, and heartfelt emotion was a joy to behold. Colonel Blimp is nearly a perfect film in my estimation and I have a suspicion it will stay in my Top 10 for the duration. I was really drawn to depth of the story, which manages to blithely skip through the lives of two men while still humanizing them completely — and I can’t say enough good things about Anton Walbrook’s amazing performance in that film. A Canterbury Tale and “I Know Where I’m Going!” are pieces of fluff by comparison, but they are still over-brimming with ideas, winning performances, visual pizzazz and grand, gentle humor. I am a big admirer of Brief Encounter, but I find the opening third of the film to be kind of hard going. I attribute that in part to the flashback/narration structure of the movie, which took some time to click with me. And that’s a shame, because the last third of the film in particular is stupendous in its raw emotional power. Our previous SASY Wrap was dominated by American films and we noted that they tend to eschew genuine emotion. I remember joking that we probably couldn’t expect to see any raw nerves exposed in our next set of 10 because so many of the films were British. Man, was I wrong. These movies find a way to use the reserve of British society to actually make things more devastating and moving than if the characters had been freely expressing themselves. But let’s not dwell off the coast of the Continent for too long — onward to the rest of Europe!

S. – By comparison Rome, Open City and Day of Wrath are far more overt in their displays of emotion, but no less psychologically engaging. On the one hand we have a drama being played out in the streets of a Nazi-occupied city, giving a human face to the atrocities that became part of everyday life under a fascist regime. The other explores a more insidious type of control, although just as brutal, with religious ideology deciding who lives and who dies. The performances were strong across the board with the central female character in both films proving outstanding. Pina in Rome, Open City is an unforgettable character. Gutsy, strong and vulnerable all at once, she was vividly brought to life by Anna Magnani. I loved watching this dynamo of a woman defy the oppressive conditions she found herself in to fight for a way of life that she felt was important, even though the odds were enormously stacked against her. Day of Wrath deals with oppression in a different form, one directed specifically at women. To begin with Anne is cowered by the many restraints of her circumstances. However, she becomes empowered by the realisation that those who seek to control her are actually afraid of her. Director Carl Dreyer’s awesome style adds depth and uncertainty to all the main players, while subtly transforming them before your eyes. Both of these films are great, drawing you into a (thankfully) unfamiliar world via relatable and interesting characters.

J. – Agreed, there was a definite power to those films, in no small part because of the way they handled two very different modes of oppression. I was particularly taken by Day of Wrath, in no small part because of the stylistic elements of Carl Dreyer. We’ve seen three Dreyer films now and I am becoming increasingly enamored with the director with each passing film. That film is such a slow fuse of agony and release. I don’t think Rome, Open City is as powerful, if only because it is a more standard melodrama in certain respects, although it definitely goes to much darker places than most such films.

One thing that strikes me now that you have brought up Pina and Anne is that strong or at least complex female characters are something of a hallmark of this batch of films. Beyond the two already mentioned, A Canterbury Tale features a strongly inquisitive and self-sufficient woman in the form of Alison. Joan Webster of “I Know Where I’m Going!” might be something of a gold-digger, but she is certainly no shrinking violet and has set down a very clear (if misguided) path for herself. Laura in Brief Encounter is a complex examination of the role women are expected to play in society, and it is real bravura performance. Arlette gives the finest performance in Children of Paradise as the impenetrable Garance, a deeply complex woman who is always in charge of every situation. And even in the male driven world of Ivan the Terrible, the principal villain and main driver of the plot is Ivan’s scheming aunt. I have a feeling that this bounty of interesting women characters is not representative of the period, but I think it is a major reason why these films continue to resonate with viewers. Do you think that is a fair observation, S., or am I giving these roles too much credit? I just find it interesting because strong women characters didn’t seem to be a feature of the American films in our previous 10 unless the actress was the female lead in a screwball comedy.

S. – The women represented in this batch of films were fantastic, not only for their substance but also for their variety. No cookie-cutter stereotypes appearing mostly for decorative purposes in the European contingent. It is a huge part of why I enjoyed this group of films so much. I think it is notable that the two films that contained serious disappointments on the female-character front from were the American contributions (okay so Once Upon a Time in the West may not meet all the criteria for classification as a US film but it is certainly set there).

Comparing the group of early forties European films with the American-heavy SASY Wrap #5, the major difference I found is in how memorable these movies seem. By our previous standards it took us quite a while to work through these 10 films, yet I have little trouble recalling the details to my mind. I attribute that in no small part to the access provided into some complex and compelling principal female roles. While I was certainly entertained by many of the offerings from the US in this era, I was definitely not as affected by them. It will be interesting to see if this difference persists as we move forward or if it is a passing phase inspired by the widespread elevation of women outside of traditional roles in wartime Europe.

J. – I would definitely agree that these movies were far more memorable than most of the American entries in our previous block of 10. Films 51-60 were so good that my number eight above (Brief Encounter) would have been ranked number three in SASY Wrap #5. I think that is in part because these movies feel so much more substantial than much of the Hollywood fare. Realer emotions, realer stakes, and most have a real sense of cinematic style and daring. There’s a lot of boundary pushing here, be it through extreme visuals (Ivan the Terrible), unorthodox narrative techniques (Colonel Blimp), or depictions of intense physical and/or psychological violence (Rome, Open City and Day of Wrath). Don’t get me wrong, I was thoroughly entertained by films like His Girl Friday and The Lady Eve, but there is ultimately something a bit hollow about them. And that’s not really an insult; expertly crafted entertainment of that caliber is extremely difficult to produce, but I like how the European list films of the first half of the 1940s have taken on deeper challenges than simply courting the good will of the audience. And assuming we stick to a chronological approach we should actually get a nice blend of European and Hollywood films in our next batch of 10. I’m looking forward to seeing how they stack up against each other in the post-WWII world.

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