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
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
I suppose it was inevitable. You start making shadowy films and perhaps you give the camera a bit of a tilt. And I’ll be, that looks pretty damn cool. But soon you crave more — the tough streets aren’t tough enough; the light and dark still seem too grey; and that woozy angle, well, it feels more like a gentle lean. So you escalate — like a cinematic arms race: your Maltese Falcons become your Big Sleeps become your Out of the Pasts. But where does it end?
Apparently in Vienna.
Director Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1948) may not traffic in tough guy patois, but it is in many respects the ultimate in film noir. Who needs the mean streets when you have literally bombed out boulevards? Still too nice? — then we’ll take to the sewers. Shadows for atmosphere? — bah, make them dominate entire city blocks. And is there ever a need for the camera to be level? Written for the screen by acclaimed author Graham Greene, The Third Man is almost hallucinatory in its paranoia and intrigue. The film follows the inept sleuthing of Holly Martins — a failed novelist and walking personification of the ugly American — as he tries to clear the name of his friend Harry Lime. As twisting and turning as its cinematography, The Third Man is often cited as the best British film of all time. Continue reading
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
In 1939, at the age of 51, former businessman Raymond Chandler published his first novel, The Big Sleep, a dark, complex mystery following hard-boiled private detective Philip Marlowe as he wends his way through a series of murders and disappearances tied to a blackmail and pornography racket. Chandler is one of the great stylists in American literature and a giant in the genre of detective fiction, but there is no doubt that a solid measure of his fame stems from director Howard Hawks’ film noir adaptation of The Big Sleep (1946). The film capitalizes on the tough, anti-hero charisma of Humphrey Bogart in the role of Philip Marlowe and spices up the mix by pairing Bogie with Lauren Bacall. The two were then in the midst of a torrid affair and that chemistry is splashed all across the screen — in some ways it actually saved the movie from potential box office disaster (we’ll get into that below). In many respects The Big Sleep is a tangled mess of a film. It’s not really the best place to go for a coherent narrative or earned plot twists, but it is blessed with some of the best dialogue of any noir fiction. And while the film as whole might not make much sense, individual scenes sparkle with sexual tension or slang-ridden bravado. It’s the rare murder mystery where it doesn’t really matter a damn who done it. Being along for the ride is more than enough. (115 minutes) Continue reading
With Sicily about to fall into Allied hands and American and British troops threatening moving up the boot of Italy, Fascist overlord Benito Mussolini fell from the heights of power in 1943. In that moment, Italy transformed from ally of Germany to a puppet state controlled and occupied by the Third Reich. Italian director Roberto Rossellini started his career under the fascist regime, churning out propaganda narratives for the reactionary government while secretly filming anti-fascist forces to promote their cause. Almost immediately upon the ouster of German forces from Rome in 1944, Rossellini got to work on the anti-fascist Rome, Open City (Roma, città aperta, 1945). Set during the German occupation of Italy, the film revolves around an attempt to hide an Italian freedom fighter who has caught the attention of the Gestapo. The movie initially abides by the standard dictums of wartime melodrama as the freedom fighter is hidden by a sympathetic couple and an anti-fascist priest, but as consequences pile up for those involved, the film becomes a stark examination of brutality and courage, as well as the divide between those who serve themselves and those who strive for something larger. The characters in Rome, Open City are based on real life persons (indeed the project started as a documentary), and apparently the film cut too close to the bone for post-war audiences of the day. But while it may have fizzled at the Italian box office, Rossellini’s reliance on non-professional actors, down and dirty location shooting, and unflinching look at wartime suffering has come to be seen as not just a classic, but the progenitor of an entire style of cinema: Italian neo-realism. Continue reading
Poor Orson. With his first film (Citizen Kane), Orson Welles knocked it out of the park, but only really in the eyes of later film scholars and enthusiasts. At the time of its release in 1941, Kane was a failure at the box office and actually booed at the Academy Awards (although it did pick up a screenwriting Oscar). So the pressure was on for Welles to deliver a hit with his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942). It was not to be. The Magnificent Ambersons follows the decaying fortunes of the Amberson family from Victorian elites to forgotten relics in the 20th century. The journey is largely chronicled through the story of Amberson scion George Minafer, a vicious, entitled lout with a pretty serious mother fixation. George clings tenaciously to the former glory of the Amberson name while courting Lucy, the daughter of an inventor and automobile entrepreneur who happens to be in love with George’s mother. Though gorgeously and meticulously shot, the dark drama went over terribly with preview audiences. While Welles was overseas on a project, the studio ruthlessly cut about 50 minutes from the film and tacked on a happy ending, essentially destroying the original vision of the movie. Sadly, only this truncated version remains today, and it became the first of many occasions where the genius behind Citizen Kane would see his films slashed or undermined by studio hacks. (88 min.) Continue reading