SASY Wrap #8 — The Gr8 Escape

Oh boy — where to start? No, that’s the wrong thing to write; more like “What took you so long?”. Our last post was a yammer on Lawrence of Arabia, which only took us about five months, and now we have left ourselves the unenviable task of trying to sort through a batch of 10 movies, the most recent of which we viewed in April. But thankfully this is a particularly memorable batch of films (although in the interest of moving things along we’ll probably cut this particular SASY Wrap short). Our latest slate of 10 movies saw us saying goodbye to the 1940s, a decade of Sight & Sound films that has treated us particularly well. And it has also seen the beginning of an explosion of Japanese films that are going to be a mainstay over the next few sequences of 10. But enough of that, let’s get to our respective rankings of films 71 through 80:

S.

J.

1. Late Spring (1949) 1. Late Spring (1949)
2. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) 2. Seven Samurai (1954)
3. Seven Samurai (1954) 3. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
4. The Third Man (1949) 4. Sunset Blvd. (1950)
5. Spring in a Small Town (1948) 5. Bicycle Thieves (1948)
6. Bicycle Thieves (1948) 6. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)
7. Sunset Blvd. (1950) 7. The Third Man (1949)
8. In a Lonely Place (1950) 8. Spring in a Small Town (1948)
9. Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) 9. In a Lonely Place (1950)
10. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) 10. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

S. – In spite of what our lax blog posting might imply, this was an outstanding bunch of films. There is much to love here, with Kind Hearts and Coronets easily my favourite of the last place holders from previous SASY Wraps. The war is still casting a shadow over the late forties with the offerings set in Austria, Italy and Japan strongly influenced by the recent conflict, although I think a change in tone is evident. Those left to carry on with life are survivors and a theme of resilience comes to the fore in the varied stories that spring out of such environments. Lawrence of Arabia and Seven Samurai feel like outliers in the group, both being the equivalent of action blockbusters well before such a thing became standard movie fare. The remaining films are centred around flawed characters ranging from the fragile Noriko of Late Spring, to the bitter and violent Dixon Steele of In a Lonely Place and the unstable and infamous Norma Desmond. The protagonists we are invited to spend time with through most of the movies are damaged people trying to make their way with varied success. Frequently the threats in these movies come from within, the bombs may have stopped raining down but there are still many difficult day to day struggles to negotiate in this post-war world. What is your take on this batch of 10, J.?

J. – I think we can both agree that this is the strongest set of 10 yet — a truly enthralling batch of films. Though we were both in agreement on this, it almost feels wrong to be listing Kind Hearts and Coronets in last place given how strong and singular a comedy it is. And the films at the top of our respective lists are decidedly ones for the ages (there’s a reason my top 2 both launched up into my Top 10… As of Yet).

But for the purposes of this discussion, I think it best to toss out Lawrence of Arabia and Seven Samurai. They are not only outliers by virtue of being action epics; they also happen to be later films than the rest of this batch, coming out in 1962 and 1954 respectively. They are not products of the post-World War II environment like the remaining movies.

So taking the other eight films under consideration, I would say that I only partially agree with your observations. I definitely agree that many of these films feature resilient characters — survivors of one sort or another; but it is an interesting feature of these movies that pretty much none of the protagonists in these films are rewarded for their resilience (at least not wholly). It definitely speaks to the vein of darkness that seems to run through post-war cinema — a darkness that was on full display in our last set of 10 films which covered 1946-48. But something appears to have changed in the last two years of the 40s and the early 50s. The films in the very immediate aftermath of the WWII were dark, but they tended to be movies driven by circumstances and plotting. War films, noir thrillers, espionage plots, wild west violence were all featured in that block of 10. These films also dive into the post-war darkness, but through a very different lens. Here the darkness is mood; it is relationships; it is the twisted psychology of the Dixon Steeles and Norma Desmonds. Late Spring and Spring in a Small Town are set aftermath of a devastating war, but retreat from that conflict to focus on the psychology and relationship dynamics of two women. Bicycle Thieves appears to be a film about the dire conditions of post-war Rome, but it is most powerful as relationship-driven piece about a father and his son. Letter from an Unknown Woman mourns the loss of old Europe through a young woman’s obsession and loss of innocence. Our one comedy follows a serial murderer — wringing laughs from horrible things. And even our noir thriller entry — The Third Man — is not immune. It is a whodunit for a fake murder, a convoluted plunge into the underbelly of post-conflict politics that is really about a sad moron trying to get a girl to like him. For all its canted angles and cloak-and-dagger shadows, The Third Man is straight up character piece. And I think that’s why these movies stand out so very well. They are beautifully written — and for the most part beautifully shot — films about people, not plots.

S. – You make a good point about the films being beautifully shot, J. In a small story so much character building is delivered in the way they are represented visually and the view the audience is given of their world. The approaches taken in these films are quite different, but the insight they give into the perceptions of the main players in each case works brilliantly to furnish the narrative. A stand out for me is The Third Man where Holly Martins’ conduct is really that of a man out of his depth who never seems to fully realise it. Using his slow-witted and narrow point of view to hint at the the complexity of the situation he is blundering around in, while maintaining his own internal sense of dignity, is compelling viewing and beautifully sets up the fantastic final scene where he hopefully approaches an encounter that can only end in rejection for him. The visual story-telling is as revealing as any dialogue exchanged. Perhaps it is the Japanese films that excel at this the most though. Through pauses, deflections and outright refusal to directly engage with the problems at hand, so much of what makes Late Spring (and for that matter the Chinese Spring in a Small Town) great is what the audience is shown and not told. The list has a few more films from Japan coming up, which bodes very well indeed.

J. – It has more than a few, S. We’re going to be hit with a slew of Japanese films over the next two rounds of 10, which I am supremely excited for. But more than that, I’m just glad to see us getting back into the groove. This batch of 10 films was fantastic, and it is nearly criminal that we haven’t followed it up with more yammering. But the Christmas break is upon us and the urge is with us — so let’s get to it!

 

 

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