#93 (tie) – Madame de… (1953), dir. Max Ophüls

Madame de... (1953)

Mirror, mirror, at the ball. Director Max Ophüls brings the elegance in Madame de…, a lavishly staged romance set in European high society.

Max Ophüls kicked off his directorial career in his native Germany, but as so many other Jewish artists, he fled the Nazis in 1933 and eventually made his way to Hollywood at the outset of the 1940s. There he made a number of well-received films, including previous list movie Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), which drew on a Continental sophistication and moral flexibility that one did not find in the generally more prudish American studio system. But many of Ophüls most admired films were produced after his return to Europe in the 1950s. With Madame de… (aka The Earrings of Madame de…, 1953) Ophüls ups the ante in his depiction of fin de siecle upper-class society, drowning the film in gowns and ornately dressed sets. It also follows the lead of his previous list film in following the progression of an intense, but ultimately doomed affair. But Madame de… trades in a greater subtlety, working within the unwritten — and often unspoken — rules of society and enhancing the dynamics among characters through remarkable camerawork and staging. It is a film as elegant as its aristocratic leads, and as sparkling as the diamond earrings that launch the story. (100 min.) Continue reading

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#24 (tie) – Rashomon (1950), dir. Kurosawa Akira

Rashomon (1950)

I might have been lying when I said I was lying. Actress Machiko Kyo takes in the horror of her situation — at least in her version of the story — in Kurosawa Akira’s landmark film Rashomon.

A man lies dead in a forest clearing, his wife has been assaulted, and a bandit has made off with their horse and possessions. This much is known, but everything else is called into question as the bandit, the wife, and the dead man (speaking through a medium) tell drastically different versions of how this came to be. And a story level beyond, three men discuss these testimonies as they take shelter from the pouring rain and, confronted with an apparent web of death and lies, ponder the nature of the human soul. Kurosawa Akira’s Rashomon (1950) was a major landmark in world cinema, breaking Japanese film into the global consciousness in a major way (and generally letting the West know that their was more than Europe and Hollywood out there). The film — which essentially tells the same story four times from radically different vantage points — is a remarkable deconstruction of narrative convention and calls into question the supposed impartiality of the camera’s gaze. Endlessly influential — the “Rashomon effect” has even entered standard legal parlance — the film calls into question the nature of truth and examines the urges and self-serving motives that obscure the pure core of our common humanity. (88 min.) Continue reading

#144 (tie) – Diary of a Country Priest (1951), dir. Robert Bresson

Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Confessions. Our unnamed titular protagonist pays his respects at the death of the one person who he was able to truly comfort in director Robert Bresson’s meditation on faith and anguish.

This is kind of a big one — our first Robert Bresson film at Fan With a Movie Yammer. Bresson is the most decorated director on the Sight & Sound list, with a remarkable seven films (more than half his total output) earning a spot on the list. Among the most respected and revered of French directors, Bresson is known for his minimalism and use of non-professional actors, and his films are credited with paving the way for the French New Wave of cinema. The director’s third feature, Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d’un curé de campagne, 1951), is his first film on the Sight & Sound list. Featuring unorthodox plotting and a distinctly spiritual bent, Diary of a Country Priest follows the travails of a young priest who has just received control over his first parish. There he meets suspicion and resentment from his parishioners, and his internal struggles — both bodily and spiritually — threaten to consume him. Spare and elegant, but displaying an ever tightening emotional tension (and a wry, satiric bent), Diary of a Country Priest is an exploration of what it means to find consolation in a world full of tragedies and malice. (115 min.) Continue reading

#154 (tie) – In a Lonely Place (1950), dir. Nicholas Ray

In a Lonely Place (1950)

Temporary insanity. Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart are star-crossed lovers torn apart by Bogie’s potentially murderous temper in director Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place.

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

#127 (tie) – Spring in a Small Town (1948), dir. Fei Mu

Spring in a Small Town (1948)

A house divided. A woman prepares medicine for her husband while trying to ignore the stares of her former lover in director Fei Mu’s tense domestic drama Spring in a Small Town.

We’ve been stuck here of late at FWAMY. So far we’ve yammered about 73 Sight & Sound list films, all of which come from just eight countries. So it is very nice to welcome a new nation to the fold: China. Spring in a Small Town (Xiǎochéng zhī chūn, 1948) was filmed in the short window between the end of World War II and the beginning of communist rule in China in 1949. As such it captures a very unique — if very brief — chapter of China’s history, and offers insight into what the country thought of itself before Chairman Mao. But the epic turbulence of this period is kept well to the background in Spring in a Small Town, which is a domestic melodrama that contains a grand total of five characters. An ailing man lives in the ruins of his family’s mansion with his wife, sister and a servant. One day the man is visited by a friend — a friend who used to be romantically attached to the sick man’s wife. It is a simple set up, but evocatively constructed to be a slow burn of passion versus duty; romance versus friendship. And while set in a society that lasted all of a few years, the beautifully shot Spring in a Small Town reaches for something universal and timeless. (98 min.) Continue reading

#154 (tie) – Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), dir. Max Ophüls

Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948)

You’ll never walk alone. Joan Fontaine stars in director Max Ophüls’ melodrama of manners about a young woman whose obsession with a philandering musician leads to heartbreak and ruin.

The Sight & Sound list films of the latter half of the 1940s tend to either dwell in down and dirty realism or reach for the heightened realities of fantasy or film noir. This being the case, director Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman almost feels like a relic from the 1930s, with its upper-class sophistication and gorgeous, overstuffed settings. But there is a dark undercurrent running through the movie that seems more in keeping with post-war cinema, and the restrained but emotionally rich performances are hard to imagine from the more loquacious characters that populated the first decade and half of talkies. Epic in scope, but intimate in feel, Letter from an Unknown Woman follows the obsessive love of Lisa Berndle, a Viennese girl, as she pines for her neighbor Stefan, a womanizing pianist. Beautifully shot and a featuring a tremendous lead performance by Joan Fontaine, Ophül’s first entry on the Sight & Sound list can be thought of as an anti-melodrama — the rare film that thrums our rawest nerves by focusing not on our outbursts but our constraints. (86 min.) Continue reading

#202 (tie) – Germany, Year Zero (1948), dir. Roberto Rossellini

Germany, Year Zero (1948)

I’ve said all along you’re a tough one… Twelve-year-old Edmund Koeler walks through the nigh deserted streets of Berlin in the aftermath of World War II in director Roberto Rossellini’s examination of the German psyche following defeat.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Italian director Roberto Rossellini made two heavily charged films focusing on the effort to free Italy from the grip of Fascism. Both Rome, Open City (1945) and Paisá (1946) took an interesting (if self-serving) perspective when it came to representing Fascism in Italy, almost completely ignoring the Italian Fascists while heaping unending scorn on the Nazis who occupied Italy in the closing days of the war. The Germans in these films were irredeemable monsters who seemed to derive pleasure from murder and torture; almost cartoonish villains that served as a sharp contrast to Rossellini’s more nuanced approach to Italian and Allied characters. So it is something of a surprise that the third film of the director’s famed ‘Neorealist Trilogy‘ — Germany, Year Zero (Germania, anno zero, 1948) — is about the suffering of the German people in the wake of defeat. The film follows the 12-year-old Edmund Koeler as he vainly attempts to help his impoverished family make ends meet in the ruins of Berlin. Like in the two previous films of the trilogy, Rossellini makes use of non-professional actors and location shooting in an attempt to bring gritty truth to what is essentially a melodrama. But set among the destruction and despair, the movie’s greatest strength may be that it offers a perspective on Third Reich Germany that is rarely considered by the victors of the war, that of a damaged country ravaged by bombs and ideology both. (73 min.) Continue reading