#81 (tie) – Lawrence of Arabia (1962), dir. David Lean

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

On the road to Damascus. Peter O’Toole makes his debut as a leading man in Lawrence of Arabia, a bio-pic recalling the Arab Revolt against the Turks in World War I.

When it comes to the film epic, it might be fair to say there are two kinds: Lawrence of Arabia and others. To be sure, there are plenty of films that aspire to go big — be it butt-testing running times; stories that cover years, if not decades; or spectacles on the grandest of scales. But Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is a different beast altogether. Relying less on overt pomp and largely devoid of ornate sets or heightened reality, the film derives its grandeur from remarkable desert landscapes and an intensity generated not just from incident but from the inner lives of its characters. In this, the film was no doubt aided by being based on the autobiography of T.E. Lawrence, a British officer who helped lead an Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. But the film is also rooted in the keen sense of character and relationships that director David Lean showcased in his earlier, more modest dramas like Brief Encounter (1945). By being — or at least feeling — true to history and humanity, Lawrence of Arabia is able to take one man’s story and make it as intense and sprawling as the desert itself. (227 min.) Continue reading

#202 (tie) – Paisà (1946), dir. Roberto Rossellini

Paisa (1946) directed by Roberto Rossellini

I like this plane! An American soldier drunkenly rants to a thieving Neapolitan street kid in a vignette from Paisà, Roberto Rossellini’s anthology of stories examining the effects of WWII on the Italian people and the Allied soldiers who fought against the fascists.

In 1945, during the closing months of World War II, Roberto Rossellini kicked of the neo-realism film movement in Italy with Rome, Open City, his look at Nazi oppression and the Italian anti-fascist resistance. Rossellini’s follow-up, Paisà (aka Paisan, 1946), is in much the same vein and serves as the second of a trilogy of neo-realist films examining aspects of the Second World War. (The third film — Germany, Year Zero — is also on the Sight & Sound list.) Like in Rome, Open City, Rossellini makes use of on-location shooting and a cast populated largely by amateur actors or non-actors, but the director tries to work on a much larger canvas for this film. Or perhaps that should be canvases, as Paisà is actually a collection of six stories that track the progress of the war as Allied troops move ever northward up the boot of Italy. Each story is an autonomous block, completely separate from the other tales, but they share the common thread of focusing on moments of interaction between Allied personnel and Italians either fighting in or affected by the conflict. Though spiked with humor, romance, and devout expressions of faith, Paisà is not a film that revels in the downfall of fascism. Instead it is unflinching in its presentation of the brutality of oppression and the violence and sacrifice it took to liberate a still-stricken nation. But through all the suffering Rossellini never preaches, it is left to the audience to decide upon the grand purpose of these tales. (120 min.) Continue reading

#102 (tie) – Ivan the Terrible, Part I (1944), dir. Sergei Eisenstein

Ivan the Terrible

C.C.C.People Power. Tsar Ivan Groznyy absorbs the will of the people as they march to beg his return to the thrown in one of countless powerful images from Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, Part I.

Sergei Eisenstein is one of the great directors. A pioneer of montage editing, inventive camera placement, and rousing action set pieces, Eisenstein was also a deeply cerebral filmmaker and a Marxist deconstructionist of film technique who put together some of the best theoretical pieces on movies ever written. In many ways he represented the leading edge of experimental Russian cinema in the cultural renewal that followed the Bolshevik Revolution. But like many of his contemporaries, things didn’t go so well for the director after Stalin came to power, and his film output dwindled. Still, with World War II raging and the Soviet Union suffering the brunt of the casualties, Eisenstein was called on to create a series of films meant to inspire the Russian people against the Germans. The director set out to craft a trilogy about Ivan the Terrible, the first tsar of all Russia, using the 16th century monarch as a representation of the supreme power of the State and a symbol of unity for the Russian people. Ivan the Terrible, Part I (Ivan Groznyy, 1944) was considered a triumph upon its release, and features some of the most stunning visuals found in any film, as it tackles the opening years of Ivan’s reign from his coronation to his first major victory over the scheming nobility. But Eisenstein’s success was short-lived. Though Part II was finished, it did not meet the approval of Stalin, who forbade the film from being released. Stalin also pulled the plug on the production of Part III, of which little footage has survived. Eisenstein passed away not long after. (99 min.) Continue reading

#183 (tie) – Rome, Open City (1945), dir. Roberto Rossellini

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Res gestae divina Pina. Actress Anna Magnani, in a stellar performance, gives the evil eye to an SS soldier in Rome, Open City, a story of anti-fascist resistance during the German occupation of Italy in World War II.

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

#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

#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

#144 (tie) – To Be or Not To Be (1942), dir. Ernst Lubitsch

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Where be your gibes now? Jack Benny stars as a pompous Shakespearean actor of the Warsaw stage who finds himself roped into the fight against the Nazis in director Ernst Lubitsch’s dark farce.

The devastation of Poland, Nazis, gross censorship, Nazis, infidelity, Nazis, espionage, Nazis, dead body disposal, and some more Nazis. Certainly doesn’t sound like much of a hoot, but director Ernst Lubitsch knew better. Radio comedy king Jack Benny and screwball comedy veteran Carole Lombard star as a Joseph and Maria Tura, a husband and wife team of actors in a Polish theater troupe. Due to the Nazi blitzkrieg and Maria’s dalliance with a young bomber pilot, the pair become caught up in a life or death ruse to silence a German spy and protect the Polish underground from the Gestapo. That all sounds like the plot of a super serious spy thriller, and that’s kind of the point, as To Be or Not To Be uses the look, beats, and fake facial hair of a wartime spy flick but turns everything on its head into a dark but supremely silly farce. The film was something of a bomb when it opened in 1942; apparently American audiences weren’t quite ready to laugh at the conflict they had just decided to finally join. But the movie has endured, most likely because, like Chaplin before him and Mel Brooks after him, the German-born Lubitsch knew that humor and satire are particularly powerful weapons in undermining the allure of Hitler and his minions. Countless movies since World War II have shown that the Nazis are among the most reliable cinematic villains; To Be or Not To Be demonstrates with aplomb that they can also be some of the best straight men in a comedic blitz. (99 min.) Continue reading