#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

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#171 (tie) – Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), dir. Robert Hamer

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Murder on his mind. Dennis Price stars as a distant heir to a dukedom intent on dispatching all the relatives keeping him from his inheritance in the black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets.

There’s a certain morbidity to post-World War II cinema. That darkness has frequently manifested itself in the Sight & Sound movies of the late-40s, which traffic in tragedy, brutality, and the twisted morality and shadowy settings of film noir. So perhaps it is all too fitting that director Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) — the first post-war comedy on the Sight & Sound list — is black as pitch. The film follows the exploits of Louis Mazzini, a man whose aristocrat mother was unceremoniously ousted from her noble family for marrying an opera singer. Feeling cheated of his birthright and indignant over the treatment of his mother, Louis decides to eliminate as many relatives as necessary to inherit the title of Duke of D’Ascoyne. Not the typical stuff of comedy, but with a wicked playfulness and the benefit of having the great Alec Guinness playing the entirety of the D’Ascoyne clan, Kind Hearts and Coronets finds a way to charm in its cool, delightfully urbane take on murder. (106 min.) Continue reading

#144 (tie) – To Be or Not To Be (1942), dir. Ernst Lubitsch

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Where be your gibes now? Jack Benny stars as a pompous Shakespearean actor of the Warsaw stage who finds himself roped into the fight against the Nazis in director Ernst Lubitsch’s dark farce.

The devastation of Poland, Nazis, gross censorship, Nazis, infidelity, Nazis, espionage, Nazis, dead body disposal, and some more Nazis. Certainly doesn’t sound like much of a hoot, but director Ernst Lubitsch knew better. Radio comedy king Jack Benny and screwball comedy veteran Carole Lombard star as a Joseph and Maria Tura, a husband and wife team of actors in a Polish theater troupe. Due to the Nazi blitzkrieg and Maria’s dalliance with a young bomber pilot, the pair become caught up in a life or death ruse to silence a German spy and protect the Polish underground from the Gestapo. That all sounds like the plot of a super serious spy thriller, and that’s kind of the point, as To Be or Not To Be uses the look, beats, and fake facial hair of a wartime spy flick but turns everything on its head into a dark but supremely silly farce. The film was something of a bomb when it opened in 1942; apparently American audiences weren’t quite ready to laugh at the conflict they had just decided to finally join. But the movie has endured, most likely because, like Chaplin before him and Mel Brooks after him, the German-born Lubitsch knew that humor and satire are particularly powerful weapons in undermining the allure of Hitler and his minions. Countless movies since World War II have shown that the Nazis are among the most reliable cinematic villains; To Be or Not To Be demonstrates with aplomb that they can also be some of the best straight men in a comedic blitz. (99 min.) Continue reading