#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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#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

#117 (tie) – The Red Shoes (1948), dir. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

The Red Shoes (1948)

Why do you want to live? Powell & Pressburger pile on the visuals to create an extravaganza of music and dance in their final Sight & Sound film, The Red Shoes.

Ah, ’tis a sad day here in the land of Movie Yammers. Once upon a time (aka the beginning of 2014) S. and J. had a happy prospect ahead of them: six whole films by British filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Why, six films is almost an eternity of entertainment! And so we ventured forth through the dizzying days of Colonel Blimp to the Himalayan heights of Black Narcissus. But through it all we knew one day the Powell & Pressburger films (as well as our capacity for alliteration) would come to an end, and so they have with The Red Shoes (1948). And while we might no longer be dancing through Canterbury or Scotland — much less through the heavens themselves — The Red Shoes is a pretty grand way to end a run like no other on the Sight & Sound list. Loosely based on a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, the film recounts the story of three ambitious artists — a ballerina, a composer, and the director of a ballet troupe — as they struggle to balance love and art. Like the filmmakers’ Black Narcissus, plotting and character development are often a bit secondary in The Red Shoes, with the focus more on raw emotion and artistry than reason or sense. And through its kinetic ballet scenes and painterly blasts of Technicolor, The Red Shoes overwhelms with a torrent of visual splendor and daring quite unlike any other film. So, as David Bowie once insisted, “Let’s dance!” (135 min.) Continue reading

#235 (tie) – Red River (1948), dir. Howard Hawks & Arthur Rosson

Red River (1948)

Denial ain’t just… John Wayne stars as a ruthless rancher willing to kill his ranch hands if it means keeping his own form of order on a cattle drive from Texas in Howard Hawks’ Red River.

Howard Hawks is a mainstay of the Sight & Sound list, contributing more entries (six) than any other American director. This will be the fifth Hawks film we’ve tackled here at Fan With a Movie Yammer, and it is readily apparent that the director is a master of many styles. So far we’ve seen an adventure drama, two screwball comedies, a noir whodunit, and now with our latest film — Red River (1948) — a Western. And a very expansive Western at that, as the movie finds cowboy film legend John Wayne and the tightly wound Montgomery Clift (in his first major film role) at the head of a massive herd of cattle as they seek to drive their way to fortune and glory in post-Civil War America. Red River is an unusual Western, passing over the black-and-white morality of so many of these films by presenting a deeply flawed hero/villain in Wayne’s iron-hard rancher. It also serves as an interesting snapshot of a transitional moment in American cinema as a new breed of actor was starting to emerge that eschewed the heightened (some might say stagy) performing styles of Golden Age Hollywood in search of something more real and emotionally resonant. This, of course, comes in the form of Clift, whose twitchy performance as Matt Garth stands in sharp contrast to the old school styles of his fellow actors, and set the stage for the likes of James Dean and Marlon Brando in the decade to come. (133 min.) Continue reading

#183 (tie) – Out of the Past (1947), dir. Jacques Torneur

Out of the Past (1947)

Like Dylan in the movies. Robert Mitchum stars as a former private detective whose old life comes back to haunt him in director Jacques Torneur’s noir thriller Out of the Past.

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

#171 (tie) – Notorious (1946), dir. Alfred Hitchcock

Notorious

Crooked dealings. Alfred Hitchcock gets noiry with his angles and lighting in the post-WWII political thriller Notorious, starring Cary Grant (pictured), Ingrid Bergman, and Claude Rains.

And lo! Fan With a Movie Yammer has finally reached its first film by arguably the most famous director who ever lived. Yes, Alfred Hitchcock takes the stage in this yammer with his oldest entry on the Sight & Sound list: Notorious (1946). The British director certainly made a name for himself in his native land, getting into the directing biz back in the silent era, but it was in Hollywood where the “Master of Suspense” principally made his mark. And Notorious is a very Hollywood production in many ways, with its A-list stars, pro-America plotting, and Edith Head costumes. But the film runs darker than a lot of American studio productions, incorporating noir elements in its story of a federal agent (Cary Grant) enlisting the daughter of a Nazi spy (Ingrid Bergman) to infiltrate a ring of Nazi émigrés up to some sort of shady business down in Brazil. Though set after World War II, the film harnesses the trauma of that conflict and the brand new concerns of the nuclear age to craft a clockwork espionage thriller. And the movie largely lives up to its title, dealing in murky ethical waters with some very unsavory or emotionally damaged characters who are working to balance love and duty — even if the duty part may be quite distasteful indeed. (101 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