#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

#84 (tie) – Casablanca (1942), dir. Michael Curtiz

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Of all the gin joints. Humphrey Bogart became a mega-star following his iconic portrayal of the cynical, drunken anti-hero Rick Blaine in Casablanca — a story of romance and the perils of neutrality in the face of Fascism.

Here at Fan With a Movie Yammer we are right smack in the middle of a huge run of American films, a situation that is largely the result of much of the world in the early 1940s having been an active war zone or under the control of autocratic governments that stifled the arts. The United States finally entered the fray in late 1941 with troops and weapons, but also with cultural products aimed at boosting morale at home, supporting its allies, and vilifying its enemies. Tons of pro-war/anti-Axis films were rushed into production, and perhaps none is more famous than 1942’s Casablanca. The unproduced play upon which Casablanca is based landed at Warner Bros. studios literally the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the rush to get the story into production meant that much of it was still being written as the movie was filming. But out of this chaotic process a gaggle of screenwriters somehow managed to capture lightning in a bottle. As you probably already know, Casablanca is the story of an American nightclub owner in Morocco who has to struggle between conscience and desire when his former love re-enters his life. The film is often thought of as a classic romance, but in many ways it is really more about its setting — a world of refugees and ruthless oppressors that must be set right, no matter the sacrifice. And you’re sacrificing a lot if you are willing to give up Ingrid Bergman. (102 min.) Continue reading

#171 (tie) – King Kong (1933), dir. Merian C. Cooper & Ernest B. Schoedsack

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Knock. Knock. The mighty ape bursts through the barred gate of Skull Island’s protective wall to retrieve his blonde in King Kong, the special effects-driven spectacular that revolutionized adventure/fantasy cinema.

If there’s one Sight & Sound film of which everyone knows at least the basic story, it’s King Kong (1933). Giant ape, blonde, airplanes, and the Empire State Building. It is one of the great enduring creations of Hollywood and has filtered across the global cultural lexicon through countless references, parodies, and remakes for 80 years — so we won’t trouble you with a lengthy recap. King Kong was the brainchild of filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, whose sparse filmographies belie their influence. Cooper was a real-life adventurer — and the inspiration for King Kong‘s Carl Denham — and he and Schoedsack had previously collaborated on some well received silent docu-dramas filmed in Persia and Siam (elephant stampede footage from their 1927 film Chang is actually used in Duck Soup). But however much adventure and exoticism Cooper and Schoedsack brought to the proceedings, the bulk of the genius behind King Kong probably came from Willis O’Brien, the stop-motion animation pioneer who brought Kong and the film’s menagerie of prehistoric beasts to life. Kong was a special effects marvel in its day, and still has the power to awe with its inventiveness and visual splendor. Combine that with some killer action set pieces, frenetic pacing, and Max Steiner’s influential (and supremely bombastic) score, and you have a film that rivals the titular ape in scale and power. (104 min.) Continue reading

#34 (tie) – The General (1926), dir. Buster Keaton

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On a crazy train. You know how sometimes actors make a big deal about doing their own stunts; Buster Keaton could laugh in their faces.

The phrase “they don’t make ’em like they used to” is an over-used and often rather meaningless expression. But when it comes to Buster Keaton’s The General, it is all too apt, if only because studios and insurance companies would never, ever let a major star get away with performing the dozens of life-threatening stunts that Keaton pulls off throughout the movie. No computer imaging, no painting out of safety harnesses, no stand-ins, no problem — just get that massive train rolling right on ahead. The General is an action comedy loosely based on a true event from the American Civil War. Keaton plays a Southern engineer whose engine (The General of the movie’s title) is stolen by Union spies. Keaton races to take his engine back — and maybe rescue the woman he loves — kicking off a series of crazy chases along railroad lines and across the front lines of the war. (75 min.) Continue reading

#154 (tie) – Only Angels Have Wings (1939), dir. Howard Hawks

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Pea-nuuuuuuuuuuuts!!! Cary Grant and Jean Arthur star in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Howard Hawk’s action-packed adventure melodrama about mail pilots flying dangerous mountain routes in South America.

A young woman gets mixed up with a group of hard livin’, hard drinkin’ expatriate pilots who careen through a life of reckless adventure in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Cary Grant plays the manager of a small airline contracted to carry the mail through dangerous South American mountain passes. Equipped with small, out-of-date planes, the pilots don’t have the equipment needed to fly above the mountains or navigate safely in bad weather, making every flight a chance for high drama. Our window into this insane business is a plucky American woman (Jean Arthur), who steps off a boat for what is supposed to be a few hours and finds herself unable to resist Grant’s churlish appeal. This is the first movie by Howard Hawks we are going to discuss, but it is certainly not the last, as Hawks has more films on the Sight & Sound 250 list than any other American director. (121 min.) Continue reading

#11 – Battleship Potemkin (1925), dir. Sergei Eisenstein

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Comrade overboard! Potemkin sailors leap into the water to save the leader of the mutiny against tyrannical Tsarist officers in Eisenstein’s remarkable Soviet propaganda film.

Workers of the world unite! In this entry we discuss Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin), a film that has been considered a major classic pretty much since its premier in 1925. The 2012 Sight & Sound poll represents the first time in the poll’s 60 year history that Potemkin has not been in the Top 10, and it missed out by just one vote. So it carries a lot of critical baggage as an essential film. The movie itself centers on the true story of a mutiny aboard a Russian naval vessel during the revolutionary uprisings of 1905 and the (fictional) brutal reprisal by Tsarist troops against the mutineers’ supporters in the city of Odessa. Like most Russian films made in the aftermath of the Russian civil war (1917-1922), Potemkin is very much a piece of communist propaganda, but its revolutionary use of montage is credited with redefining the way in which stories are told on the silver screen. (69 min.) Continue reading

#93 (tie) – Intolerance (1916), dir. D.W. Griffith

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Wonder of the world. A scene of celebration in Intolerance‘s Babylon, featuring what must be one of the most remarkable sets ever constructed. No matte paintings here; all those little specks that look like people–yeah, those are actual people.

By the middle of the nineteen-teens, there was no bigger director in Hollywood than D.W. Griffith, and with Intolerance (1916) he went waaaaaaaaaaay out of his way to show that to everyone. Intolerance is a massive epic that weaves together four stories: one set in the present, another in the last days of Babylon, a third about conflict between Catholics and Huguenots in 16th century France, and (because Griffith certainly isn’t lacking in ambition) the life of Jesus of Nazareth. As Griffith jumps between the stories, he attempts to draw parallels meant to warn against the dangers of intolerance towards the beliefs of others. That certainly sounds like a noble idea, but the film came on the heels of his smash hit The Birth of a Nation, for which Griffith was (very rightly) accused of tremendous racism against black Americans. Whether this film was meant as penance is unclear. What is clear is that Intolerance was far and away the most expensive movie made to that point, and you see every dollar on the screen. (198 min.) Continue reading