#93 (tie) – Madame de… (1953), dir. Max Ophüls

Madame de... (1953)

Mirror, mirror, at the ball. Director Max Ophüls brings the elegance in Madame de…, a lavishly staged romance set in European high society.

Max Ophüls kicked off his directorial career in his native Germany, but as so many other Jewish artists, he fled the Nazis in 1933 and eventually made his way to Hollywood at the outset of the 1940s. There he made a number of well-received films, including previous list movie Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), which drew on a Continental sophistication and moral flexibility that one did not find in the generally more prudish American studio system. But many of Ophüls most admired films were produced after his return to Europe in the 1950s. With Madame de… (aka The Earrings of Madame de…, 1953) Ophüls ups the ante in his depiction of fin de siecle upper-class society, drowning the film in gowns and ornately dressed sets. It also follows the lead of his previous list film in following the progression of an intense, but ultimately doomed affair. But Madame de… trades in a greater subtlety, working within the unwritten — and often unspoken — rules of society and enhancing the dynamics among characters through remarkable camerawork and staging. It is a film as elegant as its aristocratic leads, and as sparkling as the diamond earrings that launch the story. (100 min.) Continue reading

#81 (tie) – Lawrence of Arabia (1962), dir. David Lean

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

On the road to Damascus. Peter O’Toole makes his debut as a leading man in Lawrence of Arabia, a bio-pic recalling the Arab Revolt against the Turks in World War I.

When it comes to the film epic, it might be fair to say there are two kinds: Lawrence of Arabia and others. To be sure, there are plenty of films that aspire to go big — be it butt-testing running times; stories that cover years, if not decades; or spectacles on the grandest of scales. But Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is a different beast altogether. Relying less on overt pomp and largely devoid of ornate sets or heightened reality, the film derives its grandeur from remarkable desert landscapes and an intensity generated not just from incident but from the inner lives of its characters. In this, the film was no doubt aided by being based on the autobiography of T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who helped lead an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. But the film is also rooted in the keen sense of character and relationships that director David Lean showcased in his earlier, more modest dramas like Brief Encounter (1945). By being — or at least feeling — true to history and humanity, Lawrence of Arabia is able to take one man’s story and make it as intense and sprawling as the desert itself. (227 min.) Continue reading

#63 (tie) – Sunset Blvd. (1950), dir. Billy Wilder

Sunset Blvd. (1950)

The pictures got small. With her depiction of a faded silent movie star desperate for relevance, Gloria Swanson grabs the spotlight with a vengeance and refuses to let go in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd.

Movies can be about most anything — and the Sight & Sound list is proof positive of that basic sentiment. The prehistoric battle royale of King Kong is worlds apart from, say, the psychological noir of In a Lonely Place or the kaleidoscopic view of everyday life in Man With a Movie Camera. But one theme that seems to enthrall filmmakers is the art and business of making movies — it’s a theme that, for instance, runs through all of the films in the previous sentence. And why wouldn’t filmmakers be obsessed with with both their craft and the business that makes it possible — it’s basically the movie-making equivalent of “write what you know”. And few people knew movie making better than Billy Wilder. A German emigré who arrived in the United States with hardly any English, Wilder managed to quickly become one of the top scriptwriters and directors in Hollywood, known for his barbed humor and sophisticated dialogue. After two decades in the business Wilder turned his focus on Hollywood itself. Sunset Blvd. (1950) is a savage look at the way Hollywood operates, particularly in its capacity for casting aside those who gave their all to the business. But while the film bears the hallmarks of Wilder’s caustic wit and subtle direction, Sunset Blvd. is truly dominated by one of the great screen performances of all time by former silent movie star Gloria Swanson — an actor who was decidedly ready for her closeup. (110 min.) Continue reading

#73 (tie) – The Third Man (1949), dir. Carol Reed

The Third Man (1949)

The League of Shadows. Set amid the devastation of post-war Vienna, The Third Man is a twisted take on the noir thriller — a black-and-white canvas for some very grey morality.

I suppose it was inevitable. You start making shadowy films and perhaps you give the camera a bit of a tilt. And I’ll be, that looks pretty damn cool. But soon you crave more — the tough streets aren’t tough enough; the light and dark still seem too grey; and that woozy angle, well, it feels more like a gentle lean. So you escalate — like a cinematic arms race: your Maltese Falcons become your Big Sleeps become your Out of the Pasts. But where does it end?

Apparently in Vienna.

Director Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1948) may not traffic in tough guy patois, but it is in many respects the ultimate in film noir. Who needs the mean streets when you have literally bombed out boulevards? Still too nice? — then we’ll take to the sewers. Shadows for atmosphere? — bah, make them dominate entire city blocks. And is there ever a need for the camera to be level? Written for the screen by acclaimed author Graham Greene, The Third Man is almost hallucinatory in its paranoia and intrigue. The film follows the inept sleuthing of Holly Martins — a failed novelist and walking personification of the ugly American — as he tries to clear the name of his friend Harry Lime. As twisting and turning as its cinematography, The Third Man is often cited as the best British film of all time. Continue reading

#90 (tie) – A Matter of Life and Death (1946), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Matter of Life and Death

Stairway to Heaven. The great figures of world history line the massive staircase connecting Earth and the afterlife in Powell & Pressburger’s giddily inventive fantasy romance A Matter of Life and Death.

We are now making our way into the second half of British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s amazing run of films in the 1940s. A Matter of Life and Death (1946) is also the duo’s first movie made after World War II, but the war still heavily informs the film, which centers on the near-death experience of English bomber pilot Peter Carter (played by David Niven). The film also continues the explorations of Anglo-American relations that can be found in A Canterbury Tale and (to a lesser extent) Colonel Blimp, by having Peter’s love interest be June, an American girl serving as a military radio operator. But all of that sounds rather serious, when A Matter of Life and Death is really a fantasy romance, taking the whimsy of Powell & Pressburger’s previous efforts and ratcheting it up to 11. The basic plot is that Peter is forced to jump from a burning aircraft without a parachute. His death is certain, but due to a clerical error in the afterlife he doesn’t die. Heaven tries to correct its mistake, but Peter appeals his death on the grounds that he and June have fallen in love. But then again, this all might be in Peter’s head. With visual pizzazz that matches the fantastical plotting, A Matter of Life and Death is often considered the high water mark of Powell & Pressburger’s filmography, and is the highest ranked of their six Sight & Sound films. (104 min.) Continue reading

#78 (tie) – Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), dir. Sergio Leone

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Fan With No Name. Charles Bronson circles for a showdown in Italian director Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, a widescreen epic take on violence, business, and ethics in the American Wild West.

We’ve made it through every movie on the Sight & Sound list up through 1945 but not a single one has been a Western, surprising given that the genre was a popular favorite going back to at the least The Great Train Robbery (1903). We’ll soon be getting to a few classic Hollywood oaters, but our first foray into the Wild West is coming via Italian director Sergio Leone. In 1964 Leone brought a TV actor by the name of Clint Eastwood out to make a Western based largely on Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo (1961). The resulting picture, A Fistful of Dollars, kicked off a wave of Italian-made cowboy flicks generally known as Spaghetti Westerns, with Leone and Eastwood’s The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) almost certainly being the most famous. But it is Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era un volta il West, 1968) that has generally ended up being the most critically lauded of Leone’s films. Starring Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, and Henry Fonda in a rare villain role, Once Upon a Time in the West is something of a culmination of the style developed by Leone in his work with Eastwood. Through a barrage of intense close ups, slow builds of tension, exaggerated sound effects, moral ambiguity, and dynamic widescreen compositions, Leone manages to utterly redefine the Western, making many of his influences seem tame by comparison. (166 min.) Continue reading

#73 (tie) – Children of Paradise (1945), dir. Marcel Carné

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Mime doesn’t pay. Baptiste, a lovelorn stage performer in 1820s Paris, serves as the soul of Marcel Carné’s epic melodrama of ardent love, self-destructive passion, and the populist power of theater.

With materials scarce and their country still under Nazi occupation, Marcel Carné, France’s most successful director of the era, and the famed poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert decided to make the biggest, most expensive film ever produced in France. From end to end Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis, 1945) was a poke straight in the eye of the modern reality of France and the modern motion picture in general. French Resistance were hid by the production as extras and crew. The set designer and composer were Jews whom Carné helped hide from the Nazis as they worked on the film. The Germans wouldn’t allow movies to be longer than 90 min, so Carné simply split his three-hour film in two and claimed it was two movies — re-running the credits again in the middle. But what appears on screen also places Children of Paradise well outside the realm of the conventional. Set in 1820s Paris, the story follows the tangled lives of several men who are vying for the love of the streetwise Garance. This in itself is nothing unusual, but the film’s vision of a bygone era is wholly unique — diving into the theatrical past to question the limits of the cinema of the present. The principal wooers of the film are Baptiste, a mime who is the first to elevate his art beyond pure slapstick, and Frédérick, an impoverished lothario with dreams of playing Othello. As such, much of the film is based around scenes of performance on the 19th century stage, often in mime and generally with an over-the-top brio that strays wildly from naturalism. Children of Paradise is wholly about passion — pure, lustful, possessive, or destructive — which the film lays bare in its chaotic vision of old Paris, its romantic cinematography, and the fervent declarations and actions of its characters. (190 min.) Continue reading