#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

#33 – Bicycle Thieves (1948), dir. Vittorio de Sica

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

I want to ride it where I like. Antonio and his son Bruno suffer the indignity of poverty and desperation — but also enjoy connection and understanding — in the neo-realist classic Bicycle Thieves.

We’ve already taken a rather precipitous dive into Italian Neorealism with a trilogy of movies by the genre’s founder, Roberto Rossellini. But the most famous and most highly lauded film from that school of movie-making is director Vittorio de Sica’s deceptively simple masterpiece Bicycle Thieves (Ladri de bicicleta, 1948). So potent was the film’s impact — at least among critics — that it topped the first Sight & Sound list in 1952 — yes, just four years after the movie came out it was hailed as the greatest film ever made. And while Bicycle Thieves no longer hangs about in the vaunted Top 10 of the Sight & Sound list, it is still easy to see how the film captured the hearts and minds of the critical establishment back in the day (and its current rank of 33 is nothing to sneeze at either). Like Rossellini’s Neorealist Trilogy, Bicycle Thieves makes pointed use of location shooting and non-professional actors to tell a story that is grittier and more grounded in the real world than filmic spectacle. But unlike Rossellini’s work, which uses extreme violence or an uncompromising narrative bleakness to make its points, Bicycle Thieves is a simple story about a simple family. It follows a man and his son as they scour Rome looking for the man’s stolen bicycle, which he desperately needs to keep his job. But in sticking with this father/son duo, de Sica offer up a wealth of commentary on poverty, family, the plight of the working class, religion, and Italian society in general but always in a manner that feels organic, funny, and emotional resonant. So let’s go for a ride! (Just make sure you lock up that bike up when we’re done.) 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

#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

#117 (tie) – A Canterbury Tale (1944), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

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Pilgrims’ progress. Alison and Mr. Colpeper share a moment atop a hill overlooking Canterbury in Powell & Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, a wartime homage to English tradition and a jovial examination of the ties between Britain and America.

Badly burned by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire that is Meet Me in St. Louis, we had the pleasure of being promptly salved by the soothing and airy A Canterbury Tale (1944), the next Powell & Pressburger entry on the Sight & Sound list. We’ve already yammered about one Powell & Pressburger film (the excellent Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), but have said little of the famed filmmaking duo, who were known as “The Archers”. Though they share directing, writing, and producing credits on their films, the majority of the directing duties fell to Michael Powell, who had been working in the business since the silent film days. Emeric Pressburger was a Hungarian emigré to Britain who was the principal writer of the films and handled much of the production duties. Together they went on a critically acclaimed run in the 1940s like nobody else — landing six films on the Sight & Sound list in six consecutive years (1943-1948). Perhaps the gentlest and most modest of those six is A Canterbury Tale, which follows an American sergeant, a British sergeant, and a young woman in the Women’s Land Army as they try to unravel a mystery in the countryside of Kent, before all journeying to Canterbury. Though slight in scope and full of gentle (and genuinely funny) humor, the film manages to tackle a wide array of issues, from Anglo-American relations, the urban/rural divide, and faith in the face of adversity, to our connection to history and the extent to which good intentions can mitigate bad actions. It’s a pilgrimage well worth making. (124 min.) Continue reading

#127 (tie) – Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), dir. Vincente Minnelli

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Clang! Judy Garland sings up a storm in Meet Me in St. Louis, a nostalgic musical romp about growing up white and privileged in Middle America at the turn of the 20th century.

The first major sound film — The Jazz Singer (1927) — was a musical. And this is hardly a surprise; early talkies took their cues from the theatrical stage, and singing and dancing have long been a staple of plays and vaudeville. But despite the vast array of musicals that would grace the silver screen over the next several decades, they don’t feature all that prominently on the Sight & Sound list, with perhaps just five making the cut. In our exploration of the list so far, the only musicals we have encountered are a parody of the form (Duck Soup) and a children’s film (The Wizard of Oz). But that changes now with Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), the first honest-to-goodness adult musical on the Sight & Sound list. Directed by her future husband Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland stars as Esther Smith, a young woman pining for the boy next door ahead of the 1904 World’s Fair. The film pretty much evenly divides itself between Esther’s grasp for romance and the tomboy antics of her youngest sister Tootie, striking a tone of nostalgia for a bygone age that is celebrated through the use of period songs and a number of original compositions that have themselves become popular standards. Meet Me in St. Louis also features some of the most eye-poppingly vivid Technicolor cinematography ever captured on film, highlighting the movie’s already fever pitch energy and melodrama. (113 min.) 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