#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

#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

#154 (tie) – Brief Encounter (1945), dir. David Lean

Brief Encounter (1945)

Trains that pass in the night. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard star as two lovers caught up in a short-lived extramarital affair in David Lean’s earnest romance.

British director David Lean is most famous as a maker of titanic Hollywood epics, including The Bridge on the River Kwai, Dr. Zhivago, and of course Lawrence of Arabia. But before Columbia Pictures came calling, Lean typically helmed British films of a much more modest scale, including a couple of stellar adaptions of Charles Dickens novels. Prior to Oliver Twist and T.E. Lawrence capturing his attention, Lean’s bread and butter was making films based on the works of British playwright, actor, and wit Noël Coward. The last of his Coward adaptations, Brief Encounter (1945) is generally considered to be the high point of Lean’s British film work before his talents were harnessed by American studios. The story of Brief Encounter is quite simple, a suburban housewife meets a suburban doctor while running errands in the city. Though both are already married and have children, they form an instant attraction and become tangled in a short-lived romance. Brief Encounter is an elegant study in desire and repression, passion and propriety; and ranks as one of few movie romances that dares to feel real in its emotions and realistic in its plotting. But it also remains strikingly cinematic, transforming a dingy train station into a realm of love and anguish. (86 min.) Continue reading

#183 (tie) – “I Know Where I’m Going!” (1945), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

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He’ll take the high road. Wendy Hiller and Roger Livesey star in this charming romantic comedy from Britain’s great filmmaking duo as a social-climbing young woman and a down on his luck Scottish laird.

With “I Know Where I’m Going!” we yammerers are already through half of Powell & Pressburger’s six entries on the Sight & Sound list. But with our chronological approach that’s hardly surprising, given that the duo scored a list-worthy movie a year for six consecutive years. “I Know Where I’m Going!” is something of a departure from the previous films we have discussed, if only because it is much more straightforward and fast-paced than the epic Colonel Blimp or the genial A Canterbury Tale, but it is not without a serious dash of whimsy and visual flair — hallmarks of those earlier films. The story follows Joan Webster, an ambitious woman who has been working to rocket up the social ladder since she was a toddler. She is about to be married to a wealthy industrialist about twice her age, and heads up to the Scottish Hebrides islands for the ceremony. But stormy weather waylays her and throws her in the company of Torquil MacNeil, a Royal Navy officer and Scottish laird of little fortune. Well, you can probably guess the rest of the story, but what “I Know Where I’m Going!” lacks in unpredictability it more than makes up for with excellent humor, beautiful cinematography, and a playful surrealist streak that makes the most of its fairytale setting among the peaks and heather. Continue reading

#93 (tie) – The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

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Gad, sir, Major General Wynne-Candy is right. War starts at midnight in Powell & Pressburger’s warmhearted satire of British conservatism in the face of the German blitzkrieg.

In the 1930s, New Zealand political cartoonist David Low devised the character of an old school military blowhard as way to satirize the right-wing politics of his adopted country of Great Britain. Bald, red-faced, and walrus mustachioed, Colonel Blimp was meant to sound like the product of another era — out of touch but insistent; dimwitted but righteously certain. But when it came time for Blimp to make his debut on the silver screen, filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger decided to take the character in a rather unexpected direction. Sure, the beached whale we’re first introduced to in a Turkish bath is very much the man from Low’s comic, but the filmmakers decided not focus on the man that is.  They instead turn back the clock to show us how he became a caricature of conservative bluster. So from a one-panel, one-note joke of a comic we get a four decade exploration of honor, love, war, and true friendship as we follow the life of Clive Candy from vivacious young man to bloated relic. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) has been referred to in some corners as the “British Citizen Kane“, and while a bit too simple, that description is largely apt, as Powell and Pressburger contrived a multifaceted narrative that attempts to explain the life of an iconic man. And the duo manage to pull it off with a wealth of clever storytelling, hugely sympathetic performances, and some of the best color cinematography of the era. (163 min.) Continue reading

#4 – The Rules of the Game (1939), dir. Jean Renoir

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Unnecessary roughness. Farce and tragedy collide head on in director Jean Renoir’s cynical take on pre-WWII French society — both high and low. In this shot, a marquis and the man trying to steal his wife carry the marquis’ mistress after she falls into hysterics — a taste of the complicated relationships woven throughout the film.

We dive back into the Sight & Sound Top 10 in this entry, yammering about director Jean Renoir’s remarkable upstairs/downstairs tragicomedy The Rules of the Game (La règle du jeu, 1939). The film provides a glimpse into the lives of the rich and remarkable in the halcyon days just before the Second World War, as it tracks the affairs and entanglements of an upper class clique while they party and hunt at the country estate of the Marquis de la Cheyniest. The marquis is trying to break things off with his mistress just as a heroic pilot makes a brazen attempt to steal the marquis’ wife. The film also follows the romantic shenanigans of the staff, with a poacher-turned-servant cozying up to a flirtatious maid who happens to be the gamekeeper’s wife. The setting is ripe for farce, and Renoir keeps the conversation and the action lively, escalating the insanity as romantic advances are accepted or rebuffed. But The Rules of the Game is not content to be just a comedy of manners or a madcap party. For all the comedic antics, this is a film of complex, thoughtful individuals with hurts every bit as strong as their lusts, and Renoir’s overriding cynicism finds the melancholy waiting to consume the mirth. So many films and tales urge you to follow your heart; The Rules of the Game suggests you may be better off using your head. (106 min.) Continue reading

#117 (tie) – Trouble in Paradise (1932), dir. Ernst Lubitsch

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Francs, but no francs. Kay Francis’ widowed heiress and Herbert Marshall’s suave thief are two-thirds of a love triangle in Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise, one of funniest and most sophisticated romantic comedies ever to come out of Hollywood.

If there’s one problem with silent films it’s that it is pretty much impossible to be witty looking. Without sound you can be funny, but you can’t be witty. Likewise, you can be glamorous but not debonair; ingenious but not coolly analytical; in love but unpoetically so. American sound comedies of the 1930s seemed to be hell bent on changing all of that — their characters don’t talk so much as verbally machine gun — and the man who pretty much defined the sophisticated end of stylish movie repartee was German-born director Ernst Lubitsch. After scoring successes with German silent comedies and historical dramas, Lubitsch moved to Hollywood in 1922. At the advent of the sound era he became one of the principal directors and innovators of a newly developed genre: the movie musical. And in the 1930s and 40s he crafted some of the most impeccable screen comedies ever made — three of which are on the Sight & Sound list. Trouble in Paradise (1932) is arguably his greatest triumph, bringing a suave sophistication, irreverent amorality, and a forthright attitude towards sex that manages to be provoking and ridiculous but mature and considered. It was also too risque for the powers that be, and Trouble in Paradise was not allowed to be screened after the Production Code was imposed in Hollywood in 1935. As a result, one of the finest Hollywood comedies of all time has unfairly become one of the least seen. (83 min.) Continue reading