#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

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#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

#73 (tie) – Children of Paradise (1945), dir. Marcel Carné

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Mime doesn’t pay. Baptiste, a lovelorn stage performer in 1820s Paris, serves as the soul of Marcel Carné’s epic melodrama of ardent love, self-destructive passion, and the populist power of theater.

With materials scarce and their country still under Nazi occupation, Marcel Carné, France’s most successful director of the era, and the famed poet and screenwriter Jacques Prévert decided to make the biggest, most expensive film ever produced in France. From end to end Children of Paradise (Les enfants du paradis, 1945) was a poke straight in the eye of the modern reality of France and the modern motion picture in general. French Resistance were hid by the production as extras and crew. The set designer and composer were Jews whom Carné helped hide from the Nazis as they worked on the film. The Germans wouldn’t allow movies to be longer than 90 min, so Carné simply split his three-hour film in two and claimed it was two movies — re-running the credits again in the middle. But what appears on screen also places Children of Paradise well outside the realm of the conventional. Set in 1820s Paris, the story follows the tangled lives of several men who are vying for the love of the streetwise Garance. This in itself is nothing unusual, but the film’s vision of a bygone era is wholly unique — diving into the theatrical past to question the limits of the cinema of the present. The principal wooers of the film are Baptiste, a mime who is the first to elevate his art beyond pure slapstick, and Frédérick, an impoverished lothario with dreams of playing Othello. As such, much of the film is based around scenes of performance on the 19th century stage, often in mime and generally with an over-the-top brio that strays wildly from naturalism. Children of Paradise is wholly about passion — pure, lustful, possessive, or destructive — which the film lays bare in its chaotic vision of old Paris, its romantic cinematography, and the fervent declarations and actions of its characters. (190 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

#183 (tie) – Day of Wrath (1943), dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer

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Bothered and bewildered. Lust, guilt, faith, and the dark arts collide as the disenchanted Anne confronts her aging minister husband Absalom in Carl Th. Dreyer’s domestic drama set in the witch burning days of yore.

In what is generally considered his magnum opus — The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) — director Carl Theodor Dreyer chronicled the trial and execution of the titular heroine at the hands of vicious and merciless clergymen. The idea must have strongly resonated with Dreyer, as he tackles a similar situation in Day of Wrath (Vredens Dag, 1943), only this time during the 17th century witch hunts of his native Denmark. The film follows the troubled existence of Anne, a young woman trapped in a loveless marriage with an older clergyman. Mired in a strict, dour household and tormented by her implacable and disapproving mother-in-law, Anne meekly goes through the motions of being a dutiful housewife. But everything is thrown into disorder when she falls for her aged husband’s dashing son and gets wrapped up in the capture and execution of a local woman accused of being a witch. The result is the lighting of a slow fuse leading inevitably to tragedy and misery in the face of a social and religious order that cannot tolerate a young woman fulfilling her innermost desires. Beautifully shot and brimming with tension, Day of Wrath delves deep into the inevitability of fate and the devastating power of guilt and desire. (97 min.) Continue reading

#144 (tie) – The Great Dictator (1940), dir. Charlie Chaplin

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Schweinehund! Charlie Chaplin sticks it to the Fascists in the guise of Adenoid Hynkel, a petty, antisemitic dictator with a rather obvious inspiration. With World War II raging, The Great Dictator savages the demagogues of the day and makes the case for collective effort to make a kinder, better world.

It is a strange twist of fate that one of the most beloved and one of the most reviled men of the 20th century both sported the same iconic, if unflattering, bit of lip hardware. Charlie Chaplin donned the toothbrush mustache as essentially clown makeup, providing his Little Tramp character a trait every bit as essential as his derby and cane. Adolf Hitler certainly had an iconic appearance of his own, but chances are he didn’t find his stache to be particularly amusing. Chaplin, however, felt otherwise about the German Fuhrer, having apparently been inspired to parody Hitler after finding the overblown Nazi propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will to be laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Chaplin began filming The Great Dictator (1940) in September 1939, just as World War II kicked off, but it should be noted that this was an American film and the United States was still more than two years away from entering the war. In this regard, Chaplin was flying directly in the face of American isolationist sentiment and taking head on the Fascist forces and growing antisemitism of Europe. And in doing so he demonstrates one of the true powers of comedy: the mighty don’t necessarily mind being feared or hated, but to be made ridiculous… that hits where it hurts. (124 min.) Continue reading