A SASY digression: The omnipresent spectre of James Bond

Bond, James Bond

Hi all, this is J. We’re going to be doing something a little unusual with a few posts over the coming days that dig into a series of films that are decidedly not on the Sight & Sound 250 Greatest Films of All Time list: the canon of James Bond. Although perhaps I shouldn’t have said “we” — this one is all me, because if Daniel Craig ain’t in it, S. ain’t watching it.

I’m guessing it was around 1990, although I can’t be certain on this. It would have not been long after we got cable television for the first time, and I was plunked in front of a television with a screen little bigger than that of the laptop upon which I am typing. Bouncing from channel to channel I landed upon a bizarre scene of two men stalking each other through a psychedelic funhouse while a little person sprung traps and pranks to liven an already deadly game. It was the opening scene to The Man with the Golden Gun, and 11-year-old me was in. 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

#154 (tie) – In a Lonely Place (1950), dir. Nicholas Ray

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Temporary insanity. Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart are star-crossed lovers torn apart by Bogie’s potentially murderous temper in director Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place.

The noir movies of the 1940s rather muddied the waters when it came to movie protagonists. Even the heroes in noir films tend to be complicated or compromised, and there was perhaps no single actor more essential for creating the Hollywood antihero than Humphrey Bogart. Too gruff and brutish-looking to be a typical leading man, but too charismatic and talented for character roles, Bogie was perfect as a protagonist who straddled the line between hero and villain. It was as the thuggish, sarcastic, womanizing detective Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon that Bogie became a bona fide star, and he became an icon through his performance in Casablanca by playing a hero who was essentially an angry, jealous drunk. There was always a darkness to Bogart’s performances, and that darkness gets to come to the fore in director Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). A film set at the intersection of passion and violence, In a Lonely Place explores the capacity that we have for savagery — both to commit violence and to tolerate, or even love, those who give themselves over to rage. (93 min.) Continue reading

#154 (tie) – Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), dir. Max Ophüls

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

You’ll never walk alone. Joan Fontaine stars in director Max Ophüls’ melodrama of manners about a young woman whose obsession with a philandering musician leads to heartbreak and ruin.

The Sight & Sound list films of the latter half of the 1940s tend to either dwell in down and dirty realism or reach for the heightened realities of fantasy or film noir. This being the case, director Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman almost feels like a relic from the 1930s, with its upper-class sophistication and gorgeous, overstuffed settings. But there is a dark undercurrent running through the movie that seems more in keeping with post-war cinema, and the restrained but emotionally rich performances are hard to imagine from the more loquacious characters that populated the first decade and half of talkies. Epic in scope, but intimate in feel, Letter from an Unknown Woman follows the obsessive love of Lisa Berndle, a Viennese girl, as she pines for her neighbor Stefan, a womanizing pianist. Beautifully shot and a featuring a tremendous lead performance by Joan Fontaine, Ophül’s first entry on the Sight & Sound list can be thought of as an anti-melodrama — the rare film that thrums our rawest nerves by focusing not on our outbursts but our constraints. (86 min.) Continue reading

#235 (tie) – Red River (1948), dir. Howard Hawks & Arthur Rosson

Red River (1948)

Denial ain’t just… John Wayne stars as a ruthless rancher willing to kill his ranch hands if it means keeping his own form of order on a cattle drive from Texas in Howard Hawks’ Red River.

Howard Hawks is a mainstay of the Sight & Sound list, contributing more entries (six) than any other American director. This will be the fifth Hawks film we’ve tackled here at Fan With a Movie Yammer, and it is readily apparent that the director is a master of many styles. So far we’ve seen an adventure drama, two screwball comedies, a noir whodunit, and now with our latest film — Red River (1948) — a Western. And a very expansive Western at that, as the movie finds cowboy film legend John Wayne and the tightly wound Montgomery Clift (in his first major film role) at the head of a massive herd of cattle as they seek to drive their way to fortune and glory in post-Civil War America. Red River is an unusual Western, passing over the black-and-white morality of so many of these films by presenting a deeply flawed hero/villain in Wayne’s iron-hard rancher. It also serves as an interesting snapshot of a transitional moment in American cinema as a new breed of actor was starting to emerge that eschewed the heightened (some might say stagy) performing styles of Golden Age Hollywood in search of something more real and emotionally resonant. This, of course, comes in the form of Clift, whose twitchy performance as Matt Garth stands in sharp contrast to the old school styles of his fellow actors, and set the stage for the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando in the decade to come. (133 min.) Continue reading

#183 (tie) – Out of the Past (1947), dir. Jacques Torneur

Out of the Past (1947)

Like Dylan in the movies. Robert Mitchum stars as a former private detective whose old life comes back to haunt him in director Jacques Torneur’s noir thriller Out of the Past.

We’ve had a few list films of late that have latched onto the visual dynamics of film noir. But for all the canted angles and exaggerated shadows, the 1940s entries on the Sight & Sound list have been rather light on actual noir movies. Thankfully that changes with our latest viewing experience: Out of the Past (1947), a tale of devilish dames, compromised detectives, and the inescapable pull of fate. And also badass dialogue, with the film dropping a host of noir patter that should leave Phillip Marlowe green with envy. Out of the Past marks the sole entry on the list by director Jacques Torneur, a filmmaker otherwise best known for helming some early horror classics like The Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943). This horror background serves him well in the noir genre, bringing a deeper darkness to the cinematography than most other such movies, but also finding the crowd-pleasing humor in the sudden violence and double dealing. Out of the Past also marks the first list appearance by actor Robert Mitchum, who brings a laconic cool to the role that seems like much less of an affectation than with most other noir anti-heroes. Throw in a spectacular femme fatale in Jane Greer and a wonderfully smarmy early performance by Kirk Douglas, and you get a crackerjack piece of entertainment that is as existential as it is exuberant. (97 min.) Continue reading