SASY Wrap #7 – Double-O SASY

Activity has been at a bit of an ebb tide at blog central of late, what with new jobs and a lot of traveling for work. So we’re dipping back quite a ways for this SASY Wrap, which covers yammers 61-70. This batch of 10 movies has pushed us over the 25% mark, and it feels great to know that we’re making headway even if things have been a bit slow on the movie yammer front (hey, we got up three posts in just two weeks recently, so we’re getting better!)

This latest round of 10 didn’t have any chronological oddities in it, so we stuck exclusively with films from 1946-1948, with a full seven of the entries coming from either Roberto Rossellini, Howard Hawks, or the wonderful duo of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. However, it was films by John Ford and Jacques Torneur that really rocked our worlds in this set of pictures. But before we break down our thoughts on this block of movies, as tradition demands, we will present our respective rankings of all 10 films in this SASY Wrap:

 S.

 J.

1. Out of the Past (1947) 1. Out of the Past (1947)
2. My Darling Clementine (1946) 2. My Darling Clementine (1946)
3. The Red Shoes (1948) 3. A Matter of Life and Death (1946)
4. The Big Sleep (1946) 4. The Big Sleep (1946)
5. Black Narcissus (1947) 5. Black Narcissus (1947)
6. A Matter of Life and Death (1946) 5. The Red Shoes (1948)
7. Notorious (1946) 7. Notorious (1946)
8. Paisá (1946) 8. Paisá (1946)
9. Germany, Year Zero (1948) 9. Red River (1948)
10. Red River (1948) 10. Germany, Year Zero (1948)

J. – Ah, it looks like we’re back to creating nearly identical rankings for this selection of 10 films. That’s kind of a pity — takes a bit of punch out of the proceedings to be in such accord. But it doesn’t mean we don’t have things to talk about. I think I feel like going on a positive arc for this chat, so why don’t we start at the bottom of our respective lists.

I think it was obvious from the get-go that Germany, Year Zero and Red River were going to be at the bottom of both out lists. I think both films made the big mistake of creating scenarios so ripe with promise that the end product was quite a let down by comparison. They also featured endings that felt pretty much equally unearned, which is remarkable given that the two movies couldn’t have ended more differently if they tried. But I think Red River just barely edged out Germany, Year Zero for me because of the performances of the leads. John Wayne and Montgomery Clift are both genuinely excellent throughout the movie, and Germany, Year Zero didn’t have any performances of that caliber to plaster over some of the larger story faults. But despite my misgivings with regard to these two films, I still think it would be fair to say that they are the strongest bottom end we’ve had in any SASY Wrap. There were no films in the bunch that left me entirely cold or actively aggravated me, which is a first. What about you, S.? How do your bottom two stack up in comparison to SASY Wraps past?

S. – My main disappointment with Germany, Year Zero is that it sends a message of hopelessness. I’m not against the concept of a tragedy but when trading in the realism of an actual event I found this immensely unsatisfying. Clearly the situation Berliners found themselves in was horrifically grim. Inviting us to consider the experience through a group of characters is a compelling idea. Yet we are only allowed to dip a toe into some genuinely interesting storylines before events spiral into disaster. However, history has shown us that this generation did not implode. Somehow they got through this, against extreme odds the city bounced back. That is the story I wanted to see. So this film definitely fits into the lost opportunity basket for me. Red River, on the other hand I just didn’t like. The story was a mess, and as I have become increasingly aware through the course of yammering, story matters to me. Yes, there were some good performances, nice shots of cows and an intriguing dynamic between the two leads, but for me this did not justify the sloppiness of the narrative. I spent most of the film either feeling confused or bored. Red River is a genuine bottom dweller in my opinion.

J. – In Rossellini’s defense I will note that the film was made in the immediate aftermath of WWII, so he would have had little way of knowing what Berlin and Germany would eventually become. But not in his defense, the actors in Germany, Year Zero first filmed scenes in Berlin and then a few months later came to Rome to finish the movie. In the interim the situation in Berlin improved so much that the actors had gained weight, prompting Rossellini to put them on a crash diet to match their appearance from the scenes filmed earlier. So the director knew that the city was on the mend.

It’s definitely true that both films are very flawed, but I think flawed is actually a word I would use to categorize most of the films in this batch of 10. Up above I mentioned that the two bottom films in our rankings (at least for me) were the strongest of any block of 10 yet, but I think that this might actually be the weakest group of films we have watched yet. And that is largely due to films three through eight on our respective lists — those top two are totally special. Films three through eight all have fantastic set ups and contain truly excellent scenes. And most of them also look rather spectacular. But they also all have rather serious story problems, be it the didactic propaganda of A Matter of Life and Death, the tone deaf scenarios that bookend Paisá, or the hopelessly muddled mystery of The Big Sleep. This mix of elevation and inadequacy sometimes made for rather schizophrenic viewing, with Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes, in particular, transitioning from meh to amazing (or vice versa) in almost a heartbeat. I suppose what makes the problems with these films sting is that they all had moments of transcendent genius or overall set ups that were just bursting with promises that were never delivered.

S. – It was a frustrating trend. The creative potential of film was being embraced in exciting ways, whether through Rossellini’s gritty on-location shooting populated with real people or, at the other extreme, with highly stylised sets merging into the action in new ways to create a hyper-reality. Unfortunately, this passion for innovation seemed to come at the expense of a consistent final product. In the case of Powell and Pressburger there was a little too much style over substance. I don’t think that diminishes the truly great moments they achieved in each of their films in this block, rather it leaves a niggling desire that those stunning scenes were part of a more polished whole. For Rossellini the humanitarian tone of his post-war trilogy was eloquently brought to life with the choices he made in trying to keep very real the naturally heightened atmosphere in Italy and Germany. Seventy-plus years later the opportunity to walk those streets with him is a valuable one, even if the narratives are rather heavy-handed at times. I really wish some of the stories he was telling had held up a little better because the emotional intensity of placing the viewer on those war-torn streets was amazing.

The other genre of film that featured heavily in this bunch was American noir, which both of us have scattered through our lists in identical positions. Interestingly the most highly ranked of these on the Sight and Sound list ranked is Notorious, yet we have both put it at number seven. Without a doubt Notorious is beautiful to look at, the attention to visual detail is consistent throughout. It also brings some major star power, all of whom acquit themselves admirably. I just found something off with the flow of the story that never let me become too invested in what was playing out. The Big Sleep also brings a lot of appeal to the screen with its snappy dialogue and larger than life characters, yet blithely ignores some rather baffling plot flaws. It was Out of the Past that managed to bring all of the threads together with gritty characters, devastating wit and twists and turns that spin you around but don’t assume that you can’t put the pieces together. Being the only film of these three that I hadn’t heard of perhaps meant it wasn’t tainted by high expectations, but even so Out of the Past was hugely entertaining and a worthy addition to my overall Top 10… So far. What’s your take on our recent noir experience, J.?

J. – Well, for starters I think Notorious is only nominally a noir film, but it definitely draws from the visual aesthetic of noir and at times the dialogue hits those stylized notes (particularly in the first quarter of the movie). Indeed, there was a pervasive noir influence over all of the American films in this group of 10, even the Westerns. The deep shadows and morally ambiguous characters of My Darling Clementine felt very noirish and I’m not sure any other Western has so many scenes taking place at night. And the women of Red River were very much noir dames, and even some of John Wayne’s performance was surprisingly in keeping with the gangster villainy of noir films.

But I think this melding of genres had a very mixed payoff depending on the film. In every case these pseudo-noir movies benefited immensely from adopting the visual hallmarks of noir, which went a long way to separating these films from other Westerns and spy flicks. But the other elements often made for a poor fit, with the smooth, debonair performers in Notorious being ill-equipped to handle noir dialogue and the gangster patter of certain characters in Red River was wildly out of place and took me right out of the film. Red River was a strange beast in general, as it seemed an uncomfortable melding of traditional Westerns with a certain revisionist twist — had the filmmakers really driven home this revisionist viewpoint, the noir elements might have felt more organic. (Think of what spaghetti Westerns or Tarantino can get away with by committing to a different take on the genre.)

The actual straight up noir films, however, were fantastic, with Out of the Past definitely being the best I’ve ever seen. That film does everything right, from the look, to the dialogue, to the settings, to the plotting, to the casting. Just nails it through and through in a way that no other film in this block save My Darling Clementine does (interesting that both films are ranked rather low on the Sight & Sound list). The Big Sleep is a thoroughly entertaining film and I definitely love it, but I confess that I am uncertain as to why it is on the list. We’ve had this conversation before regarding Howard Hawks — he seems to hold a level of respect among critics that doesn’t quite seem in keeping with what I’ve seen on the screen. Don’t get me wrong, he makes absolutely terrific movies, but is The Big Sleep better than The Maltese Falcon? Is it better than Laura? Than Double Indemnity? To be starkly honest, I would have to say no. All of those movies have tighter plots, better villains, camerawork that is as good or better, more daring with regard to subject matter/moral ambiguity, and dialogue that might best The Big Sleep (although that’s a tough call). Yet none of these movies made the list — it gives one pause. In general I feel like this portion of the list has a number of movies that are riding on the coattails of filmmakers currently in critical favor, and that comes at the expense of other excellent movies of the period that have been excluded. I mean, this block had two Hawks films, two Rossellinis, and three Powell & Pressburgers (which join an additional seven films by these directors from earlier blocks). This being the case, S., I’m really looking forward to our next batch, because it will feature 10 films by 10 different directors, only one of whom (Ozu) we have yammered about before.

S. – The opportunity to view multiple works from the same director has given me a chance to get to know some of these big-hitters a little better and develop a deeper understanding of their style. It has been interesting to compare their evolving strengths and weaknesses across different productions and I have liked having some experience of a director’s work when sitting down to view a film I haven’t seen. Yet when the director pool starts to shrink too much the Sight & Sound list can start to feel confining. I’m looking forward to the sensation that I have stumbled into something wonderful and I have no idea where it will take me. So in the spirit of adventure, bring on the new!

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