In February 2012 US website Co-Create interviewed Martin Scorsese who provided a list of 85 films he believed aspirant filmmakers needed to have watched, analysed and taken to heart as they begin their careers.
I started watching films seriously in the 1960s, first became an active producer of Australian genre films in the 1970s, and went on to build IFM World Releasing Inc, a sales and distribution company for which I have watched thousands of films. Through all this time, I have kept extensive notes.
Scorsese’s list inspired me to produce a list of features which I believe an awareness and knowledge of may alleviate much of the need for a conventional film school based curriculum for emergent producers, directors and writers. They are oriented towards the needs of the Australian sector.
The list and annotations cover 75 years of cinema history and track through the decades the development the grammar of film style and genre as well as technological developments. These are not the 103 best films of all time – although many of them are – but they are milestones in the history of film theory.
It continually surprises me how many young people coming into cinema have almost no film knowledge that predates the last 20-30 years by which time cinema grammar and aesthetics had largely developed. Accordingly the list is heavily loaded with pre 80s titles.
In annotations for some of the titles I include plot lines or plot elements thereof (so spoiler alert). For other titles the notes relate more to the directors and their place in film history.
Way Down East (1920) D.W Griffith:
Griffith’s flair for Victorian melodrama is in full play here. Lillian Gish, America’s first movie star gets pregnant and finds herself abandoned. Her child dies and she is cast out from the town into a driving snow storm.
Griffith pioneered the feature film format and the roadshow epic. His expressionistic technique; blending of stage and location shooting and pre Eisenstein editing style set down much of the early grammar of feature film making. Realising the value of controlling distribution he co founded United Artists with Pickford, Chaplin, Talmadge and Swanston.
Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922) Fritz Lang:
Extraordinary fast moving crime thriller set in pre Hitler Germany. Like Hitchcock in his early British titles, Lang fuses expressionism with cutting and design. Like Hitchcock with Alma Reville, Lang’s early career was tied to his then wife Thea Von Harbou.
His big themes of fate and pre destination (key facets of film noir) begin to form here.
The General (1926) Buster Keaton:
The last of Keaton’s independent features – a wild, epic train chase set during the Civil War exemplifies the beginnings of cinema’s visual comedy style which would carry all the way through to Blake Edwards and Jerry Lewis. For those on the Keaton side of the Chaplin versus Keaton debate, this one is the clincher.
Passion of Joan of Arc (1928): Carl Theodor Dreyer:
Of course Dreyer did not invent the close up in Joan of Arc, but the extent of and consistency of the shots of Falconetti maximised the power of the camera to go deep into the soul of a performer with persistence and insistence.
The high contrast lighting emphasises the gulf between Joan and her interrogators. This conservative religious subtext is carried forward by Paul Schrader, Brian de Palma, Godard, Scorsese and Fassbinder.
Shanghai Express (1932) Josef von Sternberg:
Josef Von Sternberg’s soft focus black and white chiaroscuro style made a US star of Marlene Dietrich and created an extraordinary encyclopaedia of memorable images. In a fairy tale like studio setting notions of love, loyalty and self sacrifice are explored, often quite ambiguously. The heightened performances and astounding light and shade create a large scale primitive epic.
Queen Christina (1933) Rouben Mamoulian :
An early stylistic hybrid of silent and sound cinema. Mamoulian presents another star driven vehicle with Greta Garbo, in which once again, a magic blend of performance and a visual baroque stage setting sparkle. His subsequent career, especially in the musical genre, utilised innovations in editing sound and colour.
Astoundingly contemporary in its analysis of private needs and public duty, it demonstrates the sophistication that the early American auteurs working fully within the studio system managed to achieve.
Scarlet Express (1934) Josef von Sternberg:
This extravagant faux historical tableau represents the apex of Josef von Sternberg’s work – a delirious gauze covered mix of shadows, flickering candles, religious and Russian iconography; and pre Code sexuality. Dietrich is magical. A post silent cinema where poetry and style can still surpass story and screenplay.
La Bete Humaine (1938) Jean Renoir:
Jean Renoir’s savagely acerbic filming of Emile Zola’s nihilistic tale predates La Regle de Jeu by a year but in its blend of cynicism, film noir fatalism and critique of middle class values it foreshadows that film. 30 years later Claude Chabrol would forge a career riffling off Hitchcock and Lang and arguably skewering even more viciously French bourgeois values.
Only Angels Have Wings (1939) Howard Hawks:
Hawks’ key themes coalesce here – the isolated group of male professionals into which an outsider (in this case Jean Arthur) is injected.
The need to be “good enough” is set down. Fatalism and stoicism abound in equal measure.
The fog and the cigarette smoke create a strange artifice. The mail flyers laughing, flying and dying out of the post of Barranca in the Peruvian Andes include Cary Grant and Richard Barthelmess. Jean Arthur joins the group and becomes one of the guys. Like most of the really great films, Only Angels have Wings is an extraordinarily powerful emotional piece containing sequences that move one to tears – from the death of Joe to the final double headed coin toss.
Hawks wrote the book on the group – the team in action settings and cinema’s debt to him goes all the way through to Zero Dark 30 (2012) where Kathryn Bigelow models the Jessica Chastain character on many a Hawksian figure.
La Regle de Jeu (1939) Jean Renoir:
A year after La Bete Humaine and just before the fall of Paris, Renoir’s film, an even more savage critique of French upper class behaviours and manners was released.
Initially dismissed and then banned during the occupation, in fact it predates Citizen Kane in its use of deep focus and takes a further step away from naturalism to a kind of poetic realism with extraordinarily mobile camera work. Partly frenetic; partly measured, the film utilizes multiple plot lines to cover the foibles of a large group of characters both upstairs and downstairs. And then there’s the hunt – one of cinema’s greatest sequences.
Citizen Kane (1941) Orson Welles:
Welles’ first feature that took him to a height of critical and popular success that he never equalled was a trailblazer in many ways.
The rise and fall of a meglomanical newspaper publisher played by Welles gave him an opportunity to experiment with deep focus cinematography. And at the same time to refine the trope of the investigative reporter as plot driver. A story told largely in flashback.
The meaning of Kane’s last words “Rosebud” became the stuff of cinema legend. And we hear Bernard Hermann’s first major score.
Cat People (1942) Jacques Tourneur:
A magical mood piece where horror and shock are suggested rather than shown. Tourneur (and his producer Val Lewton) were masters of unease and ambiguity. The story, a metaphor for sexual repression, deals with a woman whose lineage is a race of people who turn into murderous panthers when sexually aroused. Reeking of noir like fatalism, the story was refilmed in 1982 by Calvinist Paul Schrader whose interests in predestination mirror the concerns of film noir.
I Walked with a Zombie (1943) Jacques Tourneur:
A trance like reverie pervades this Caribbean set piece filled with murky moral dilemmas as a young nurse falls in love with the husband of a comatose patient on a voodoo riddled plantation.
Tourneur is definitely not a believer in any inherited goodness of man – to the contrary. The dream-like beauty of evil he portrays here and in Cat People has inspired many other filmmakers – most recently Martin Scorsese with Shutter Island (2010).
Detour (1945) Edgar G.Ulmer:
Many consider this little 68 minute B picture the perfect ‘noir’. Greed and paranoia drive a story of 2 grifters thrown together on the road from Arizona to Los Angeles.
Murder intended and murder unintended combine to throw a moral noose around both their necks. Chance and random bad luck conspire so there is no way out and consequences cannot be avoided.
Duel in the Sun (1946) King Vidor:
A huge sprawling melodrama mixing all of the class, race and sexual tensions that would encompass the cinema landscape of the 50s via Minelli, Sirk, Mankiewicz and Kazan. Jennifer Jones as Pearl Chavez is caught in a Cain and Abel push pull between Gregory Peck and Joseph Cotten. The last 20 minutes featuring the desert shoot out between Peck and Jones as, both mortally wounded, they drag themselves through the desert dust to die in each others’s arms is one of cinema’s greatest moments. Vidor’s use of space, 3 strip Technicolor and Dimitri Tiomkin’s score carries this film to operatic levels of hysteria.
Out of the Past (1947) Jacques Tourneur:
In Noir you can’t escape the past and predestination drags you back no matter. Mitchum has a new girl in a new town with a new job but Jane Greer, arguably cinema’s greatest femme fatale, manipulates his flawed character and the film flashes back for a good forty minutes to let us see why. Kirk Douglas is great too as Mitchum’s opponent and like in most noirs there are lines that arepart Chandler part James M.Cain. We all have our favourites: ‘I’m sorry he didn’t die’ – ‘Give him time’ is mine. And even the ending forced on the film by the Code works as Mitchum and Greer go down together in a hail of bullets running a police roadblock.
Monsieur Verdoux (1947) Charlie Chaplin:
For those of us on the Keaton side of the silent comedy debate , it is Chaplin’s later sound features that are of interest and the greatest is Monsieur Verdoux. Loosely inspired by the Landru/Bluebeard wife killer case, cold and cynical and a perfectly apposite indirect commentary on the butchery of World War 2 and the Holocaust, Chaplin took Orson Welles original concept and filled it with ambiguous moral questions. His first film in which he stepped out of the “little tramp” character, it prefaced his final 3 politically sub-texted masterpieces Limelight, A King in New York, and his final grossly underrated A Countess from Hong Kong.
Red River (1948) Howard Hawks:
Another Hawksian group story about the first cattle drive on the Chisolm trail from Texas to Missouri with the primary tension being between stubborn rancher boss (John Wayne) and his adopted son (Montgomery Clift). From Wayne’s immortal line “Take em to Missouri Matt” to Walter Brennan’s “You’re wrong Mr Dunson”, this epic battle between Wayne and Clift leavened by the final intervention of Joanne Dru is one of the greatest American westerns. The Clift character spends the film like most Hawks characters trying to prove he is good enough and the Wayne character ages, obsesses and learns.
Macbeth (1948) Orson Welles:
7 years after Citizen Kane, Welles’ star had substantially fallen within the eyes of Hollywood studios. Republic financed Macbeth on a bargain basement budget – but this invigorated Welles to approach it in a very experimental way foreshadowing the underground alternate approach decades later of Cassavetes or Jonas Mekas and substantially adjusting and altering Shakespear’s text. John L. Russell’s cinematography is outstanding – weird, macabre, minimalist – the stark black and white is extraordinarily effective. Another example of style and mood triumphing over text.
White Heat (1949) Raoul Walsh:
Cagney’s Cody Jarrett predates Tony Perkins in Psycho as a sociopath with a mother complex.
Veteran director Raoul Walsh whose career began in silent cinema and who excelled in the 30s gangster cycle takes on film noir and Hawks’ Scarface and tracks the last jobs of a train robbing anti hero gang leader. Non-stop action (the film never feels like 114 minutes) culminate in the memorable apocalyptic shoot out on the top of a gasoline storage tank. Cagney’s “Made it Ma – to the Top of the World” as the tank explodes in a fiery inferno has passed into legend. As Freudian as a 1949 studio picture could be (in its mother versus wife analysis) the film is astoundingly tough and vicious for its time. Clearly an influence on De Palma’s Scarface and Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
Gun Crazy (1950) Joseph Lewis:
Another ultra low budget noir written under a pseudonym by black listed writer Dalton Trumbo; Lewis was an ex editor and it shows. The story is of a guy back from the war who loves guns and a woman - a carnival sharp shooter - who is “bad but will try to be good”. They get married and go on a robbery shoot up spree Bonnie and Clyde style. Trapped by the FBI, he kills her and the cops gun him down. John Dall and Peggy Cummins play the hell bent couple. Godard’s line “All you need to make a movie is a man, a woman and a gun” was a reaction to Gun Crazy. The bank heist scene shot in a single take is exemplary and the blend of noir and hysterical melodrama is perfectly pitched for the alienated post World War 2 generation. Much of what Godard brought to Breathless, his first feature, can be traced to Gun Crazy.
Diary of a Country Priest (1951) Robert Bresson
A young priest arrives in a small rural town in France for his first parish. Sick, disillusioned and battling to find and keep the elusive “grace” that his religion promises him, Bresson’s stark black and white asceticism illuminates the struggles of religion and spirituality. Like Dreyer, Bresson made only a small number of films (this was his third) over a 3 decade career but his idiosyncrasies – frequently working with unknown performers – forever delving into the gap between goodness and reality make for powerful images and sounds. Minimalist and aloof , slow paced but compelling and heart breaking in its inexorable conclusions. A film to quote when the pros and cons of voice over are debated.
Bad and the Beautiful (1952) Vincente Minnelli:
The musicals versus the melodramas. Most of us have a preference one way of the other with Minelli. For me it’s the melodramas. This is his first, dealing with the rise and fall of a Hollywood studio producer played by Kirk Douglas. An insider’s look at ego, greed and fame largely told in flashback, the plot presents Douglas as someone who betrays everyone he encounters to advance himself and then when the first film he directs fails spectacularly tries to make a comeback by calling on an actor , writer and director whose careers he built to help him out. Shot in black and white and pre cinemascope, Minelli here is still developing the lush, hysteric crane enhanced 2.35 look he would later bring to Some Came Running and 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The cynicism is there – yet blended with a love for Hollywood that Billy Wilder didn’t quite balance so easily in Sunset Boulevard.
The Kirk Douglas character has often been claimed to be based on David O’Selznick but there is some Val Lewton in there as well.
Ruby Gentry (1952) King Vidor:
You might be forgiven for thinking that the final scene of Duel in the Sun could not be topped. But you’d be wrong - as the last scenes of this extraordinary film demonstrate. Jennifer Jones is Ruby, a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, married and then widowed to a small town doctor she continues, all the while, to pursue a crazed love for cash poor land rich Charlton Heston. Her attacks against the bigoted local town folk enflame distrust and her bible bashing brother pursues her into the swamps. Heston is shot by Ruby’s brother and dies in her arms in the mud. Ruby hunts her brother in the swamp and guns him down. Like so many of these 50s Southern melodramas, this is laden with repressed characters bursting out of class and religious straight jackets in primeval explosions of violence and passion. Post war America struggling towards the 60s. The black and white cinematography - in contrast to Duel in the Sun’s lush, garish Technicolor is gothic in its mists and shadows.
Tokyo Story (1953) Yasijuro Ozu:
Ozu, like Bresson and Dreyer, is an ascetic stylist who deals with big theme issues like love and loneliness and death in a magically small scale way. Here an elderly couple find themselves shunned by their children. This film is completely devoid of sentimentality and forced emotion, but is without the modern cynicism of say a Michael Haneke with Amour. Ozu is noted for his low camera positions, with the camera often only three feet above the floor. His films are full of stillness – beautifully composed and intercut with images from life. The post World War 2 generational conflict, though Japan specific, is universal. And yet in its matter of fact honesty about how disappointing life can be and how often people who say they love us let us down, it is very American – not so much because of any restrained nihilism – but because it never attempts to present these emotions in an action or plot forward context. And so its difference is part of its attraction.
Ugetsu Monogatari (1953) Kenji Mizoguchi :
In 16th Century Japan 2 peasant couples are thrown apart and into turmoil as a Samurai army move through their province during a civil war. Along with Rashomon, Mizoguchi’s film introduced western filmgoers to Japanese cinema. The film’s ghost like qualities mirror its plot denouements and its cinematography is astounding. In one sense a fable about greed and ego; in another a lyrical meditation on hope and pain. Long, long takes blend with striking fluid black and white cinematography and a memorable 360 degree final scene. Mizoguchi made 9 more films through 1958 – when he died at 58 – but this was his masterwork.
Madame De (1953) Max Ophuls:
Ophuls here created one of the most beautiful and intricate love stories ever filmed. Danielle Darieux is a French Countess who sells off the jewelled earrings given to her by her husband Charles Boyer to cover some private gambling debt. The earrings are bought back by Boyer who gives them to his mistress who sells them. They are then bought by an Italian baron who meets the Countess through a chance encounter, falls in love with her and gives her the earrings – which her husband then discovers. In plot, a follow up to La Ronde (which Vadim remade with Jane Fonda and others in 1964) it is as cynical and yet there is a real sense of loss about the relationship of Darieux and Boyer which Boyer describes as “only superficially superficial”.
Ophuls is the absolute master of long intricate tracks and crane shots and his Proustian fascination for times past across all his productions marks his films in a very singular manner. Mannered and contrived some would say, but like Von Sternberg’s, Ophuls cinema is a unique creation – a world where camera movement and images of movie star beauty combine to create a special universe – in which misfortune and grief surround and encompass women in love.
A star is Born (1954) George Cukor:
Probably the greatest “fame and fortune mess you up” movie – certainly the greatest set in a showbiz setting. Cukor managed to contract James Mason to play opposite Judy Garland and together the two are magic. A remake of a 1937 version which Cukor also directed starring Constance Bennett, the 1954 film was Cukor’s first film in cinemascope – but he didn’t embrace it like Minelli, instead he shadowed out much of the sides of the frame to enable the performance intensity to prevail. A blend of musical and drama (Cukor frequently split genres) the film’s characters demonstrate both independence and self destructiveness – quite typical of Cukor’s characters like Claire Bloom in The Chapman Report or Katherine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett.
While his style is in a sense performance driven and while it is true that many of the greatest roles in his films are for women, the real essence of Cukor was an ability to create films that appear to be the epitome of good taste and yet seethe with a radical undertone.
Barefoot Contessa (1954) Joseph L. Mankiewicz:
Told in flashback at her funeral by the various men in her life, this is another movie world insider tale about a nightclub dancer (Ava Gardiner) who becomes a big star for writer – director Humphrey Bogart. She finds the love of her life in Rosano Brazzi but it falls apart, and when he discovers she has cheated on him, Brazzi shoots her. Filled with cynical barbs about studio Hollywood, the film’s characters (Mankiewicz wrote and directed) appear larger than life – something Mankiewicz often strove for and yet never do they seem unsteeped in pain. Like Cukor, his work is littered with great performances by women and his penchant for interiors comments on the restrictions in their lives – be they Cleopatra or Eve Harrington.
Interestingly it is the men in Gardiner’s life who tell her story and then move on - In Bogart’s case to another movie. Again like Cukor, Mankiewicz’s films appear to stand on their content, but it is the style that makes them cinema and not theatre.
Senso (1954) Luchino Visconti:
A big lush Technicolor melodrama of mad doomed love set in Venice in the 1860s. Its themes include betrayal, hypocrisy, social upheaval and corruption. Despite his neo realist background with Rosselini and De Sica, Visconti also practised romantic realism – a form of heightened melodrama – like 50s Minnelli – which reached its apotheosis 10 years later in The Leopard. Here Alida Valli is the Italian Countess who essentially progressively goes crazy as her idealised lover – Farley Granger – ultimately destroys her. Visconti’s blend of aristocratic lineage and Marxist politics work together here as the Italians and Austrians battle for control of Italy while the countess simply tries to maintain her romance. The opening scene in the Opera House encapsulates that dichotomy.
Lola Montes (1955) Max Ophuls:
Max Ophul’s last film- about the legendary 19th century actress – dancer Lola Montes (played by Martine Carol) was his only work in scope and Technicolor and the vibrancy of his images add to the expected camera flamboyance (“Life for me is movement”) the wonderful sets and costumes and music. Surprisingly modern in its treatment of the brief joys of celebrity, its tales of Montes’ exploits in a circus performance ringmastered by Peter Ustinov (standing in for Ophuls) provided a touchstone for Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians 30 years later. The circus setting often seen through glass or curtains raises way before Rear Window, Peeping Tom or Laura Mulvey the whole narrative of cinema’s male gaze and its essential voyeuristic covenant. Carol’s objectification is front and centre throughout and especially potent in the ending.
Andrew Sarris called it “the greatest movie of all time”. I would not go that far – but it is up there.
Les Diaboliques (1955) Henri-Georges Clouzot
Based on a novel by Boileau and Narcejac, from whom Hitchcock subsequently bought the story on which Vertigo was based, Les Diaboliques is arguably the most significant suspense thriller pre Psycho. In the French countryside a boarding school headmaster’s wife plots with his mistress to kill him. When they do, the body disappears. Twists and turns in the plot appear to take the film into almost ghost like territory. Like Chabrol in the 60s and 70s, Clouzot who prior to Diaboliques had shot Wages of Fear, Le Corbeau and Quai des Orfevres all nail-biting pieces, was a master of cutting and structure. There is undoubtedly a vicious, cruel and sardonic edge to Clouzot and Diaboliques in particular - especially in Simone Signoret’s performance - but perhaps no more than the cynicism of Polanski or later Hitchcock.
East of Eden (1955) Elia Kazan:
Kazan’s lush generational conflict melodrama is beautifully composed in scope and stars Raymond Massey and James Dean as father and estranged son. Thrown into the mix is Richard Davalos as Massey’s “good son” and Julie Harris as his girlfriend who is attracted to Dean. Kazan is another largely performance driven director and here Jo Van Fleet as Dean’s mother - also cast out by Massey – is stunning. But the visuals compel too – a sort of color overlay to Ford’s Grapes of Wrath – both drawn from tales by John Steinbeck. Kazan loves intensity and characters on the edge – fighting each other; nature and the elements ; and life and death.
All that Heaven Allows (1955) Douglas Sirk:
Sirk is a subverter of melodrama and a caustic critic of 1950s American repression. Like Ophuls he revels in delirious color, hysterically excessive framing and movie star casting. His films are frequently set in a domestic setting. Here affluent, but repressed widow Jane Wyman falls in love with her gardener (Rock Hudson) in a May December romance but is prevented by society’s strictures from pursuing a relationship. Isolation, loneliness and female powerlessness swirl. All that Heaven Allows never quite amounted to what Sirk’s protagonists wanted. Stonington Connecticut - Eisenhower America – conformity reigns. And only a television can provide a window to something else.
Fassbinder, fascinated by Sirk 20 years later, remade All that Heaven Allows as Fear Eats the Soul.
Moonfleet (1955) Fritz Lang:
One of Lang’s last movies – and a favourite of the Macmahoniste critics and frequently profiled in their Presence du Cinema magazine, this gothic melodrama set in 18th Century Dorset pairs a young boy (Jan Whiteley) and a rakish gentleman smuggler played by Stewart Granger. There are similarities to Hitchcock’s Jamaica Inn and many of Lang’s favourite images: cemeteries, coach rides, gambling; conflicted authority figures - are all here. Lang’s only cinemascope film well utilises the frame and the color is almost noirish in its darkened lines.
Kiss me Deadly (1955) Robert Aldrich:
A routine private eye story morphs into a ranting parable of cold war paranoia and nuclear madness.
Aldrich’s misogyny is in full flight here and the brutality and violence is surreal. Tarantino’s appropriated the image of the box and the great “whats it” in Pulp Fiction, and arguably Seigels’ Dirty Harry was an updated version of the Mike Hammer character. “Remember Me” pleads the woman running down the road on the lam from a mental asylum and heading for Los Angeles; as the film begins. Does she mean her fate; does she mean the last vestiges of film noir blown apart in the apocalyptic ending to come; or does she mean a world before a suitcase bomb could destroy it. Aldrich went on to direct a series of extraordinary films – mainly focussing on anti heroic male protagonists – but none compare to Ralph Meeker in this film.
The Searchers (1956) John Ford:
This is one of my 10 favourite films – if I don’t watch it at least once a year – it’s as if I missed Christmas. If Hawks was America’s greatest storyteller, Ford is its greatest mythmaker. Ethan Edwards is John Wayne’s most powerful performance and Ford’s most complex creation. The ultimate outsider – the obsessed, racist self sufficient individualist condemned to forever wander on the edge of a civilisation he has helped to carve out. An emotional roller coaster ride - The Searchers takes you through from the killing of his brother’s family (including his brother’s wife who may have borne his daughter) to the end of the 5 year trek to find Debbie (the surviving niece – maybe his daughter). The moment when Wayne confronts Natalie Wood and we are unsure of whether he is going to kill her or not – moves one to tears no matter how often you have seen it.
And in between – the majestic scenes of Monument Valley, the memorable lines: “That’ll be the day”, “Lets go home Debbie” etc , the graveside rendition of “Shall We Gather at the River” and the many other Ford sentimental tropes are moments of cinematic rapture. And yet this is a tough film – the last of the traditional westerns – already under siege from Anthony Mann with Fuller, Peckinpah and Ray to follow – a film in which Ford perhaps only subconsciously comes to grips with the genocide inherent in manifest destiny and the darkness at the heart of the way west.
Extraordinarily influential both directly – cf Scorsese with De Niro in Taxi Driver and George C. Scott in Hardcore; and indirectly with Schrader, Godard, Milius, Wenders and even Spielberg.
40 Guns (1957) Samuel Fuller:
While the Freudian feminist western began with Nicholas Ray and Johnny Guitar, 40 Guns blasted this genre revision into the stratosphere. Fuller as he told Godard in Pierrot le Fou, believed “film is like a battleground – love, hate action, violence , death - in one word, emotion”. A tabloid reporter, a World War 2 vet Fuller infused his films with an in your face camera, tracking shots of incredible length and punchy editing . A primitive, violent saga with Barbara Stanwyck as a wealthy ranch owner who controls the adjacent territory with the help of her 40 black clad gunmen and her wastrel brother.
Stanwyck falls in love with Barry Sullivan – but in a bloody climax he kills her brother and she has to decide where her real emotions lie. The opening sequence in black and white scope with 40 horsemen and Stanwyck coming into frame is astonishing, and the techniques displayed - the rifle framing, the low angles, the tracking - foreshadow the French New Wave, and the political sub text foreshadows the 60s.
Tarnished Angels (1957) Douglas Sirk:
By 1957 Sirk’s melodrama had reached new heights of subversion in his ongoing critique of Eisenhower period conformity with Rock Hudson as his star. This tale of a former World War 1 ace flyer now reduced to barnstorming stunt acrobatics, his wife and son and a reporter telling their story reverts from lush Technicolor to black and white scope. Faulkiner’s story is embellished by Sirk and the Dorothy Malone character becomes a kind of early post modern femme fatale / adventurer.
But the film is his most dark and fatalistic - presenting a world that presents the post Great Depression landscape as one that completely restricts an individual’s freedoms. And a world in which chance prevails and delusion and disappointment inevitably follow.
The Tall T (1957) Budd Boetticher:
A bullfighter before he became a director, Boetticher’s cycle of the Renown westerns in which he partnered with his star Randolph Scott – Tall T was one of 6, - were the last of the great classical US westerns before the genre almost disappeared until Eastwood re- critiqued it in Unforgiven and Tarantino took it post modern with Django Unchained. Tight iconic dialog; a dry desert and mountain landscape; characters on a journey – interrupted by confrontation and violent death presented with a cynical yet ultimately moral world view mark these films.
In “Tall T”, Scott, a lonely individualist is caught up in a ransom plot as a mining heiress is betrayed by her just married husband. The film contemplates the obligations of the righteous (“there are some things a man can’t ride by”) in a Homeric way and the poker set up as Scott and Richard Boone and his gang thrust and parry and try to outfox one another is gripping. The villains in Boetticher’s films are often the talkers. Scott keep his dialogue to an austere minimum.
Some Came Running (1958) Vincente Minnelli:
Minnelli’s masterpiece based on James Jones sprawling novel about a World War 2 Vet with aspirations to becoming a writer played by Frank Sinatra who comes back to a small Indiana town, upsets his conservative hypocritical brother, hooks up with Dean Martin, an inveterate sardonic gambler (who’s never seen without his hat on) and with Shirley Maclaine, a Chicago good time gal, along for the ride and in love with Sinatra. Minelli’s key themes – the tortured artist, the intra-family stress, class structures within the small town and the attractions of both academia and bohemia – swirl through this dark melodrama that becomes more and more hysterical as it proceeds. The final 10 minutes – the sprawling carnival with ferris wheels and sideshows – with Minelli’s scope camera prowling through it as Maclaine’s ex boyfriend with lethal intent stalks her as Sinatra tries to find her is one of the great moments of cinema and when Maclaine gives her life taking the bullet meant for Sinatra it’s profoundly moving.
Extraordinarily influential and beloved by Scorsese and Bogdanovitch, Godard quoted it in Contempt when Michael Picoli is in the bathtub with Martin’s cowboy hat on reading the original novel as Brigitte Bardot looks on.
Bonjour Tristesse (1958) Otto Preminger
Preminger’s greatest film and one of my 10 best. This triangle of dolce vita ennui predates Antonioni, Visconti and Losey. A 3 way between David Niven as a rich middle aged playboy; Jean Seberg as his 17 year old amoral daughter and Deborah Kerr as the conservative woman who comes between them is told initially in bleak and morose scope black and white in Paris and flashes back to summer colour on the Riviera. Preminger, as always, remains completely non-judgemental of his 3 protagonists leaving it to the viewer to be the judge. Godard was to cast Jean Seberg a year later in Breathless. Here she gives a searing performance – both in the post tragedy black and white opening where the combination of her dead stare glassy eyes and Juliette Greco’s Piaf style rendition of the existential title song cut us to the bone, and in the Riviera summer before the melancholy enveloped her, where her blend of flirtatious youth and awareness of the summer coming to an end is heartfelt.
It’s amazing that many contemporary commentators found Seberg’s performance bland and wooden – but Godard got it and if you don’t, you really have no business wanting to be in movies. And did I mention the Saul Bass credits and George’s Auric’s score?
Mon Oncle (1958) Jacques Tati:
The Keaton – Chaplin debate re emerges here as some compare and contrast Chaplin’s Modern Times to Tatis’ film. They deal with similar themes – the value of individual expression in the face of consumerism, eccentricity versus conformity; overt sophistication versus primitive confusion.
Tati’s films are complex visual treats almost silent cinema with music scores that play like the piano in a 20s picture palace. Mon Oncle was his first color film and he uses it to effect to indicate his preference for M. Hulot’s fedora, raincoat and pipe and his attic home as opposed to the ultra modern concrete residence of Hulot’s sister and her husband. Some of the scenes in the plastic hose factory where Hulot works are hilarious as are many of the neighbourhood nonsense with the dogs; the crazy garage doors etc.
Perhaps Tati can be accused of a wiful anti modernism and some find this reactionary but for me there is not the political connexion that Chaplin made with Modern Times - just a nostalgia for a pre bourgeois world.
Vertigo (1958) Alfred Hitchcock:
The greatest film ever made by cinema’s greatest director. Every component major and minor of suspense, terror and the psychological thriller was first written and conceived by Hitchcock and here in Vertigo the incredible amalgam of dreams and nightmares, obsession, past and present; impersonation and multiple personalities blend into a cocktail that remains largely impenetrable no matter how many times one views it.
Partly based on a novel by Boileau and Narcejac who wrote the story on which Diaboliques was based. Vertigo, like most of Hitchcock, has been read and reread by each successive stream of film studies analysts – from the auteurists through the structuralists and feminists and Marxist – Freudians – and for each it has served different purposes.
The romantic obsession with a dream and the controlling objectification of Kim Novak by James Stewart – for some represents the confessional controlling Hitchcock; for others it represents an almost magical treatise on death and resurrection; for others a meditation on guilt, the duality of men and women and gender ambiguity. Bernard Hermann’s repetitive circular score drives the dream to almost surreal levels and Hitchcock’s mastery of camera movement has a parallel effect. Jimmy Stewart’s transformation of Kim Novak into the mirror of the woman he loved who committed suicide is brutal and cynical and yet in its argument for death as the ultimate romantic release profoundly saddening.
Party Girl (1958) Nicholas Ray:
Robert Taylor as the crippled lawyer for prohibition crime boss Lee J Cobb and Cyd Charisse as the showgirl he falls in love with highlight this exhilarating melodrama which blends noir and musical together in what was to become Nicholas Ray’s last major studio backed Hollywood film. Stunning visuals in color and scope reflect the tortured emotional and physical crises of the two characters.
There is an edge and ferocity to the film also. When Lee J Cobb threatens Cyd Charisse with acid on her face to secure Taylor’s compliance we are in territory that resembles Sam Fuller. That same acid will be the end of Cobb in the climax and whatever homo-erotic feelings he may have had for Taylor are ‘appropriately’ (for 1958) punished. And yet there is an optimism to the film that lets us feel that Taylor and Charisse will have a happy ending. The red (Ray’s favourite color), pinks and greens give us hope.
Suddenly Last Summer (1959) Joesph L. Mankiewicz:
Another collection of taut highly strung performances by Katherine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, demonstrate Mankiewicz’s theatrical sensibilities and yet the hospital scene and Hepburn’s home and garden give him ample opportunity to demonstrate his unusual sense of visuals. The always hyper ventilating Tennessee Williams / Gore Vidal story is chock full of cannibalism, lobotomies, suppressed gay sex, prostitution, incest and gothic hot house madness. The stark black and white scope imagery is at its best when we see Taylor’s terrifying vision of her brother Sebastian’s death.
Anatomy of a Murder (1959) Otto Preminger:
Probably the greatest court room drama ever, this 3 hour movie of which the trial runs for almost 90 minutes, is a text book example of the moral ambiguity which was Preminger’s hallmark. James Stewart is the out of practice lawyer who agrees to defend Lee Remick’s army lieutenant husband (Ben Gazarra) on a murder charge.
Part of the defence is that the murder victim raped Lee Remick and that as a consequence Gazarra acted on an ”irresistible impulse” when he killed. Stewart till the end doesn’t know whether to believe his client or not and Remick may or may not have had multiple affairs. Preminger’s camera always moving never takes sides – never encourages us to take a particular point of view or identity with the defendant or the prosecution. Saul Bass credits; black and white scope. Beautiful.
General della Rovere (1959) Roberto Rossellini:
Rossellini’s story tells of a con man who is forced to impersonate a resistance hero during World War 2. A return to the neo-realism of Rome Open City (1945), the film focuses on the extraordinary and horrifying power of fascism during the war. Vittorio de Sica plays the con man who has previously made his living as a go between for the German occupation with the partisans. Here 15 years after the liberation Rossellini’s fiction documentary style becomes simulation. He himself is not a fan of the film – but this is a “never trust the artist, trust the tale” situation.
Rossellini like Preminger, has an impassive style and believes great actions and ordinary achievements are all part of life. Godard lauded Rossellini, and Bertolucci has a character in Before the Revolution say that “One cannot live without Rossellini”.
Rio Bravo (1959) Howard Hawks:
Another small group of Hawks’ professionals (the alternate family) – this time a sheriff (Wayne) a drunken deputy (Dean Martin) and an old codger (Walter Brennan) lock themselves in a jail house with a murderer waiting to be tried and fight off his fellow gang members who are trying to break him out – without any help from the town. The mutual responsibilities of the team ebb and flow.
The film is extraordinarily funny and some of the exchanges between Angie Dickenson and John Wayne are hilarious in a Kate Hepburn, Lauren Bacall – sort of way. 30 years after Only Angels have Wings, Hawks’ heroes are tired now – but their wit and finesse and their preparedness to take one day at a time – as you may get it tomorrow – remains firm. Hawks loved this set up and remade Rio Bravo twice as El Dorado and Rio Lobo . And John Carpenter took the same setup and re visualized it in Assault on Precinct 13. Wayne’s John T Chance is a unique character and Hawks saw him as a riposte to Gary Cooper’s High Noon character, and in the 60s much like the Keaton – Chaplin debate, your card was well marked depending on whether you were a fan of Zinemann and High Noon or Hawks and Rio Bravo.
Rocco and his Brothers (1960) Luchino Visconti:
Marx, Freud and neo-realism merge in this sweeping saga of a southern Italian family in the early 50s who migrate north to industrial Milan and the impact that move has on the family, particularly the 2 elder brothers Rocco (Alain Delon) and Simone ( Rento Salvatori) whose relationship is torn apart by their mutual passion for a prostitute (Anne Girardot). The 2 brothers try to improve their family situation by taking up boxing. Rocco succeeds. The interrelationship within the family rises to the level of melodrama and then opera with histrionics which become painful, sad and heartbreaking. The Cain and Abel component of the film as you would expect with Visconti has a homo-erotic edge. Yet it never intrudes – much like East of Eden and the class aspects of the north/south dichotomy initially is shown but not preached - although it is clear that the city tests family loyalty and introduces greed, jealousy and death. The black and white scope contrast look reminds one of film noir and yet mostly gives Delon an almost saintly look corresponding to his Christ like character.
Peeping Tom (1960) Michael Powell:
A companion piece to Hitchcock’s Psycho (it was released just prior), Peeping Tom destroyed Michael Powell’s career – at least with the contemporary mainstream British press; but it broke through every barrier and focussed on the murderous gaze of cinema in a very focussed and chilling way. The story of a serial killer who records the death expressions on his victim’s faces with a movie camera dealt with the same theory that Hitchcock and later De Palma analysed and for which they were respectively pilloried as misogynists or worse. The notion that we the audience are complicit, vampire like in our desire to “look”, riled convention.
An incredibly beautiful film – its colors recall Red Shoes, and like Hitchcock, there is humour there aplenty particularly with regard to its critique of the then UK film industry. Ultimately our anti hero voyeur kills himself with the same camera tripod he used on his victims. There is no psychiatrist at the finale to explain Karl Bohm’s behaviour only a remark earlier in the film when he has killed Moira Shearer – “that he has his father’s eyes”.
Michael Powell’s - or ours?
El Cid (1961) Anthony Mann:
The ultimate hero’s journey story – from hero to legend to myth. Heston’s greatest role as the Spanish nobleman who gives up a normal life driven by destiny and fate. Mann rigorously balances the personal love story of Heston and Sophia Loren with the large historical tapestry. From the comparatively intimate opening sequences of the aborted wedding through the large scale battles and ultimate magic/spiritual ending where the dead El Cid rides out on his horse to win one last battle, we move from mortal man to a Greek god like symbol.
While not Mann’s last film, it best sums up his life attitude and interests and builds from the James Stewart westerns and Man of the West in the fine tuning of the protagonists psychological journey.
The Man who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) John Ford:
Ford’s darkest movie and his ultimate re evaluation of the legends and stories upon which he built his career. The west is won and it is law books now, not gunfighters that will carry on. Wayne’s Tom Doniphon hands over the “glory” of killing Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) to lawyer James Stewart and thus his chance to marry Vera Miles as well. Apart from his story telling skills, Ford had an almost magical ability to convey emotion and melancholy and the funeral of Wayne which bookends the beginning and end of the film is chock full of that. From the cactus rose references to the often quoted “When the legend become fact print the legend”; from “Nothing’s too good for the man who shot Liberty Valance” to “Take it easy pilgrim”. It’s all there.
Some prefer Peckinpah’s Ballad of Cable Hogul as the ultimate elegy to the west, but I prefer Ford’s sentiment to Peckinpah’s cynicism.
2 Weeks in another Town (1962) Vincente Minnelli:
Minnelli’s companion piece to The Bad and the Beautiful. Set in Rome during the American invasion of Cinecitta, a burnt out star (Kirk Douglas) attempts a comeback at the request of the ageing director who discovered him (Edward G Robinson). Pre 8 ½, pre Le Mepris, this pot pourri of cinematic excess on the Tiber, is Minnelli’s (he’s 60 at this point) ultra cynical comment on La Dolce Vita. Awash with his scope color schemes reflecting via the reds and blues the troubled path of art and artists and cash and commerce, personal and professional hysteria rages. Insecurity, lack of success and creative disappointment flood the screen.
The pre-finale in which Douglas races his sports car drunkenly through the Roman streets with Cyd Charisse at his side mirrors the end of Some Came Running.
Eva (1962) Joseph Losey:
Blacklisted US director Joseph Losey moved to London to escape the reach of the House Un -American Activities Committee, but Eva – one of his most compelling films was shot in Venice and Rome. It’s a beautiful baroque piece about obsession, misrepresentation, art and passion. Stanley Baker plays a cynical but successful Welsh author whose hit book is based on a lie; and Jeanne Moreau a seductress with whom he becomes infatuated – an infatuation that destroys his life.
There is Henri Decae photography and Michel Legrand music. It’s another analysis of fame and the artistic endeavour; the commercial constraints of film; European ennui; and the nihilism of the rich. Losey’s own demons are in full flight here. The black and white scenes of the Venetian lagoons and the outskirts of Rome are stunning.
The Leopard (1963) Luchino Visconti:
Another of my 10 greatest movies. Visconti’s epic tale of changing times initially set during the rise of Garibaldi and the fight for Italian unification in the 1860s features Burt Lancaster in a majestic performance as the Prince of Salina and Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale as young aristocrats caught up in the turbulent times. Visconti, a Marxist from the gentry understands the world of Lancaster’s prince and yet can be critical of it. There is a sense of nostalgia for the rapidly changing past. The incredible ballroom scene that runs almost an hour of the 3 ½ hour running time is spectacular in itself but there are other great moments; the battlefield scenes with Delon; the political and class based manipulations; the inter connection of church and state - all shot in epic style 70mm. Even more than with “Senso”, we have a political movie that manages to be romantic and elegiac at the same time.
And the fascination with the impact on family recalls Rocco and his Brothers. Cimino (in Deer Hunter) and Scorsese in (Age of Innocence) are indebted to The Leopard and Visconti returned to these themes later in “The Damned”.
The Damned (1963) Joseph Losey:
Losey’s most exciting film set in England during the Cold War. Multiple story lines - leather jacketed teddy boys led by a very young Oliver Reed, visiting American (Macdonald Carey) ; a secret underground military / scientific installation run by Alexander Knox and an existential sculptress (played by Viveca Lindfors) come together in the apparently peaceful British seaside town of Weymouth. As baroque and self aware in its own way as Eva, the chilling ending as the camera flies past Lindfors being shot, past her Death Bird sculpture out over the coast, over Macdonald Carey and Shirley Anne Field’s boat with them dying on it from a radioactive poisoning, and finally turning back to the cliff face as we hear the imprisoned children’s voices calling “Help us, somebody help us”is one for the ages. The age of senseless violence has caught up with us.
Le Mepris (1963) Jean –Luc Godard
Godard again comments on life and love and film. Here Fritz Lang plays a frustrated director, Michel Piccoli plays a frustrated writer; Brigitte Bardot plays a frustrated wife and Jack Palance plays a frustrated producer - all caught up in an attempt to film Homer’s The Odyssey. His biggest budget and his most commercial undertaking, was in real life fraught with difficulty as the text itself. And after battling it out with producer Carlo Ponti, Godard subsequently pulled back.
Redolent with references to other movies notably Minnelli’s Some Came Running; Hawks’ Rio Bravo and Rosselini’s Voyage to Italy, Godard deals with both film theory and relationship theory. Beautiful scope cinematography by Raoul Coutard; a haunting score by Georges Delerue; and some astonishing tracking shots.
Naked Kiss (1964) Samuel Fuller:
Fuller’s most powerful piece. A prostitute comes to a small town to start a new life but the guy she hooks up turns out to be a paedophile. From the astounding opening in which Constance Towers beats up her pimp and reveals herself to be bald; through the amazing rendition of The Blue Bird of Happiness; the film is part noir/part Sirk. Like many 50s titles, Fuller shows his complete distaste for small town Americana where evil secrets lie buried beneath a veneer of conventionalism. Tough, violent and confronting, Fuller’s film punches you in the face – hard.
Marnie (1964) Alfred Hitchcock:
A compulsive thief with an aversion to the colour red, Tippi Heddren is blackmailed into marriage by Sean Connery. Visually Marnie is almost as beautiful as Vertigo, and it is hard to see today how the original negative critical response was justified. To the contrary it is emotionally wrenching and its analysis of sexual politics was ahead of its time. Once again Hitchcock comments on the matriarchal US society as Marnie’s mother is unable to accept her daughter’s love. Hitchcock’s last collaboration with composer Bernard Herrmann is amazing and the mercy killing of Marnie’s horse is one of his best cues. Tippi Hedren’s performance stands with those of Kim Novak and Grace Kelly. The wedding night rape scene is chilling. Robin Wood observed that if you disliked Marnie you dislike cinema. I agree.
The Killers (1964) Don Siegel:
Siegel’s masterpiece. Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager are 2 hitmen tracking down John Cassavetes. Opening with a vicious set up in a blind institute, it, introduces us to Angie Dickenson as a good time girl and then to Ronald Reagan in a rare villain role, it is one of the toughest crime thriller films of the 60s and arguably contains Lee Marvin’s greatest performance.
And the closing line “Lady I haven’t got the time” as Marvin – mortally wounded – staggers out of Reagan’s home onto the street as the briefcase full of dollars fall onto the lawn and the dollars start to blow away is indeed a cryptic comment on capitalism.
Kiss me Stupid (1964) Billy Wilder:
Billy Wilder’s acerbic comedy is one of his last great diatribes against American post war sexual conventions. Song writer Ray Walston hires a dancer / hooker – Kim Novak to masquerade as his wife to convince lecherous pop singer Dean Martin to take on one of his songs. Hypocrisy, double standards and an almost French farce level of frenetic activity are over laden with double entendres and beautifully timed sight gags. Like Marnie it was derided at the time of release, but it can now be viewed as the ultimately self aware Dean Martin / Rat Pack performance and a vicious yet tolerant, view of sexual morals at the beginning of the sexual revolution.
A Shot in the Dark (1964) Blake Edwards:
The second of the Pink Panther series and arguably the best. Here Edwards refines the Peter Sellers character, the bumbling French inspector, into what would become the future model. Exaggerated French accent, innumerable sight gags; Mancini’s score and the co-participants Herbert Lom, Burt Kwouk etc. Edwards makes the Clouseau character a cross between Keaton and Chaplin but never shirks from some quite vitriolic skewering of middle class platitudes. Herbert Lom as Commissioner Dreyfus – progressively being driven crazy by Clouseau - gives Peter Sellers a run for his money in the hilarity stakes. And Sellers’ billiard game has to be seen to be believed.
Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) Jacques Demy:
Jacques Demy had made Lola previously and made The Young Girls of Rochefort subsequently. But it is this completely sung musical tribute to classic Hollywood that is the gem of the three. Catherine Deneuve has never been more beautiful as Genevieve the young girl working in the umbrella store who loses her love, the local auto mechanic, to the Algerian war and marries another and Nino Castelnuovo as the gas station attender guy who comes back from Algeria and marries another is appropriately wistful and melancholic. The final scenes where Guy and Genevieve are briefly re united having moved on in their lives is painfully sad. The full opera like score by Michel Legrand is packed with emotional hits – “I will wait for you” being the most memorable. Beautiful pinks and blues predominate in the color palette and although the story itself could have slipped into kitsch, it never does - instead rising beyond sentiment to poetry
Red Desert (1964) Michelangelo Antonioni:
Antonioni’s first color film places Monica Vitti and Richard Harris in the midst of an industrial wasteland somewhere near Ravenna in the Po valley in Italy. The alienation and angst that permeated L’Aventura 4 years earlier is in full force here with the color choices reflecting the mood. Vitti – seemingly reflecting the poison in the air is unable to come to terms with the toxic, modern environment and this drives her into neurotic unease. Antonioni doesn’t provide easy answers – is Vitti’s neurosis post natal depression or a reaction to her failed suicide attempt; is it chemically induced ; is she simply a reluctant reactor to this increasingly alien environment?
Antonioni’s combination of strange sound, odd angles and colors – some exterior sequences had grass painted to make the grass green – combines to create an “other world” – better, more beautiful – perhaps? - but not a world Monica Vitti can survive in. Antonioni went on to look at a different type of disjunction in Blow Up – swinging London of the 60s and then the post Easy Rider US of Zabriskie Point. Red Desert began his experimentations with colour as an expressionistic tool and is a powerful primer.
Tomb of Ligeia (1964) Roger Corman:
The last of Corman’s Edgar Allan Poe adaptations and the most elaborate. Vincent Price plays the widower Verden Fell whose dead wife may or may not be back from the dead to wreak vengeance.
With a Robert Towne script and stunning cinematography by Arthur Grant, Corman manages to create a seriously scary world of black cats, reincarnation, dark moments in the crypt and a Vertigo-like resemblance of Price’s new wife to his first wife, deceased. Is Ligeia still alive? Is Fell trying to drive his new wife mad? Is Ligeia reincarnated as the black cat that interrupts the funeral in the film’s opening. The penultimate moments where Price is discovered in a secret vault in the Abbey in the arms of his dead wife is a truly macabre moment. Some of the Hammer films in the same decade deal with necrophilia – but none so stunningly.
Alphaville (1965) Jean Luc Godard:
Godard’s blend of dystopian sci fi and film noir is ultimately a romantic plea for the power of individualism and romantic love. It is not Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine), the trench-coated secret agent who defeats Professor Van Braun and the super computer Alpha 60, but Anna Karina, Van Braun’s daughter who as the film ends discovers what love really means. Godard’s ability to transform 60s Paris into an alien city, helped of course by Raoul Coutard’s black and white cinematography is astounding.
The film shows the nascent politicisation of Godard and the blend of philosophy, film references, computer intercuts and extracts from literature and poetry creates a most stimulating, but uneasy narrative of fear and uncertainty. The same ennui that surrounds Monica Vitti in Red Desert pervades all of the inhabitants of Alphaville. But Poetry and a Guadalcanal veteran stop Kafka in his tracks.
7 Women (1966) John Ford:
Ford’s last film and one of the few in which women play significant roles. Here the frontier is rural China in 1935 and a group of female missionaries are joined by Ann Bancroft – an atheist doctor.
Like Ava Gardner in Mogambo, Bancroft upsets the status quo within the compound and the repressed hysteria among the group bubbles to the surface. A group of bandits rampaging through the province attack the mission and hold the women hostage. Bancroft gives her life to save the others. Ford contrast the strictures of organised religion with the compassion of real morality. Filmed in a very expressionist and stylished manner, all of the familiar Fordian themes are there - civilisation versus primitivism; honor versus hypocrisy; and the strong moral codes of the character.
The “So long ya bastard” epitaph as Bancroft toasts Mike Mazurki, the Mongolian bandit leader with a poisoned cup, perhaps reflects Ford’s growing cynicism and yet reluctant acceptance of change. A beautiful score by Elmer Bernstein.
Fahrenheit 451 (1966) Francois Truffaut:
Truffaut’s first color film and his only work in English is based on a novel by Ray Bradbury about a future society where books are banned and burned. Oskar Werner is the Fireman whose job is to find and burn books and Julie Christie plays a dual role as both Werner’s compliant wife and a dissident book collector. Bernard Herrman’s score drives the powerful narrative and the images of the red fire engines moving at speed through the verdant English countryside is provocative.
The sentimental way in which the pull of literature and the written word prevail over technology reflects Trauffaut’s inherent romanticism. He comes to the same conclusions as Godard in Alphaville but for vastly different reasons. Like The Bride Wore Black and Mississippi Mermaid, Fahrenheit 451 has a decidedly Hitchcockian feel to it. In addition to Herrman’s score, there is a suspense edged cutting style and color modulated art direction. This is the Trauffaut film for those who aren’t necessarily fans. For those who are, there is of course Jules and Jim.
La Guerre est Finie (1966) Alain Resnais:
On the one hand a story about an ageing revolutionary in Franco’s Spain in the 60s (Yves Montand) who is called back for one last job; on the other a meditation about the inevitable disjunction between the old and the young. A thriller – but dialogue heavy and world weary (in the John Le Carre mode), by Resnais standards it’s a linear story and Jorge Semprun’s narrative is full of didactive political theorising. Montand is great as the leftist who has lost faith in the revolution and the voice over style gives the piece a noirish tone.
La Samourai (1967) Jean Pierre Melville:
The ultimate professional killer movie. Alan Delon’s Jeff Costello inspired Chow Yun Fat in John Woo’s The Killer and Ryan O’Neal in Walter Hill’s Driver among others. Melville shoots in a color drained of primaries; mostly devoid of dialogue. Delon with fedora, trench coat; white gloves and gun is the existential hit man who by the end of the film’s 100 minutes is clearly doomed to die.
Pursued by both the police and the Paris criminal element, he moves back and forth across the city. Melville updated 30s noir with a stylish sense of mood and detail. His early work predated the French New Wave but his influence was widespread and the Cahiers crowd were 100% fans.
Weekend (1967) Jean Luc Godard:
Godard’s last major film before his work became fully swallowed up by Maoist politics is a stunner. The amoral couple’s long drive out of Paris for a country weekend is one of the most memorable moments of cinema. The 8 minute tracking shot past a tableau of French bourgeois values being progressively assaulted - as the tone becomes more and more apocalyptic - is justly famous. Both Mireille Darc and Jean Yanne are completely lacking in any sense of obligation or emotion. The film takes us down an Alice in Wonderland like rabbit hole to a trenchant blend of criticism of both France and the US. Godard has well and truly begun his deconstruction of cinema and the film critiques and observes itself through commentary, inter title and literary reference. A blast of political counter culture.
Belle de Jour (1967) Luis Bunuel:
Spanish anarchist surrealist and pop fairy tale teller Bunuel’s film is the story of Severine (Catherine Deneuve) a married woman who works an afternoon a week at an upmarket brothel. Bunuel uses erotic imagery to cast an amused eye over sexual repression. We are never sure if what we are seeing is a dream or a reality. Deneuve’s performance is completely different here to her work for Jacques Demy or Roman Polanski – but her ice cold reserve is utilised by Bunuel as a metaphor for the restraints that capitalism places upon us – a restraint he wants to explode. 35 years on the blend of luxury and decadence still seems both modern and controversial.
Les Biches (1968) Claude Chabrol:
Chabrol and Eric Rohmer wrote the first feature length critical overview of Hitchcock’s career and many of Chabrol’s films are steeped in Hitchcockian themes – particularly transference of guilt – as well as an overall Catholic Jansenian sense of retribution. Jean – Louis Trintingant plays an architect who is pulled into a relationship with two women – Stephanie Audran and Jacqueline Sassard – who are themselves lovers. Jealousy leads to tensions which boil over into suspense and then the horror that both Hitchcock and Lang would say the characters deserve.
Chabrol’s cinematographer, Jean Rabier, makes St Tropez and its environs look even more beautiful than it seemed in Bonjour Tristesse or To Catch a Thief Chabrol plays with the way the Jacqueline Sassard character tries to “become” Stephanie Audran and that duality was often a feature of his subsequent work. The final sequence references “Vertigo” and Psycho.
The Bride Wore Black (1968) Francois Truffaut:
It speaks as to Hitchcock’s place in the film canon that so many French and then American directors tried to reference or film their own visions of characters moving through a Hitchcock landscape. Truffaut who followed Chabrol and Rohmer 10 years later with a seminal interview book with Hitchcock, goes deep into things Hitchcockian here (He had lightly explored the space previously in Fahrenheit 451).
Opening with an aborted Vertigo-like suicide, Jeanne Moreau, the bride of the title, changes her look and reappears on a vengeful quest to kill the 5 men who accidently killed her husband on her wedding day. Guilt is something you cannot escape the consequences of in Hitchcock, and Truffaut allows Moreau to progressively eliminate her husband’s murderers. Innocence is always ambiguous. There is a great Hitchcockian twist when Moreau allows herself to be arrested after killing man number 4, but we discover the police have arrested man number 5 and Moreau goes to prison so she can kill him off-screen in the final scene. Truffaut was disappointed in the film – but it stands as a text book explication of his understanding of Hitchcock’s milieu, methods and obsessions.
Moreau is a powerful force on screen here. Bernard Hermann’s score propels the narrative and Truffaut’s sentimentalism (which you either cherish or don't) is completely absent.
Legend of Lylah Clare (1968) Robert Aldrich:
Like Ford, Aldrich only began making films with significant female characters late in his career with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte and The Killing of Sister George. And like Chabrol and Truffaut, he too was moved to consider Hitchcock’s world. In some ways almost a remake of Vertigo, Lylah Clare – another of my 10 favourite films - deals with a male protagonist’s (the Von Sternberg like director, Peter Finch) attempts to recreate with Elsa Brinkman’s Kim Novak, the silent star Lylah Clare, who died in ambiguous circumstances in one of his early movies. The fate of Lylah is progressively revealed but Aldrich plays with the notions of reincarnation and possession like Hitchcock, and of course he’s fortunate enough to have Vertigo’s star Kim Novak on board. Against a background of changing Hollywood, the silent film director gets to live his life over, but discovers all he’s learned is how to make the same mistake again.
Aldrich had became cynical and vicious since the huge success of Dirty Dozen and his presentation of Hollywood morals is exemplified by the freeze frame ending of the film with the dogs from the Barkwell dog food commercial barking, jumping , and biting as they fill the screen. Is this an image of celebrity and cultural vampirism or cannibalism? Novak is impressive in her double role and the black and white flashbacks have a genuinely spooky edge. She is Dietrich-like in full fury and we are unsure if she is channeling or actually possessed by the dead Lylah. Finch’s obsession with Lylah mirrors James Stewart in “Vertigo” but Aldrich leaves Finch with some kind of answer as he sits in the deserted post premiere cinema pondering the words of love the dead Elsa (Lylah) has given to him from the screen. Consciously garish in color palette but with a lush score by Frank de Vol (Aldrich’s preferred composer for his later films), the film divides commentators but is a moving emotional ride for those who get it.
Rosemary’s Baby (1968) Roman Polanski:
It is a matter of some debate as to whether Polanski’s black and white British horror film Repulsion with Catherine Deneuve as the French manicurist in London going progressively crazy or Rosemary’s Baby in which Mia Farrow goes progressively mad in New York is the more effective work. Both are played out on claustrophobic sets and both use atonal effects laden music tracks and slow tracking shots. Both are extremely frightening psychological thrillers that focus on the anxieties of a woman protagonist. I lean to Rosemary’s Baby partly because of the excellence of the supporting cast; partly because of the metaphysical riff on the Christ story and the God is Dead pop moment. It is as clinically accurate in its portrayal of paranoia as Repulsion and yet the fact that it is shot in color adds to the alienation and unease.
Polanski’s childhood experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto make him the perfect director for a tale of the devil’s child, and the ending- in which Farrow balances deftly between the awfulness of the situation she has found herself in and her
maternal instincts - is chilling.
Teorema (1968) Pier Paolo Pasolini:
Pasonlini’s puzzle-box movie is about a stranger (Terence Stamp) who suddenly appears at the home of an upperclass Milanese family and progressively becomes sexually involved with all of the family members. Who is he? Christ? Some sort of Marxist liberator? A figment of the family’s collective imaginations? We do not know. But then he departs and each family member’s life is turned upside down – destroyed, renewed or liberated. Religion, culture, sexuality and politics are meshed together in much the same way as in his Gospel According to St Matthew. It’s a very probing questioning piece, primitive in style, but always amusing in a strange inquisitive way.
The Wild Bunch (1969) Sam Peckinpah:
An epic saga of the end of the West, Peckinpah took the post Bonnie and Clyde, violence, Vietnam infused feelings of the times and created an elegy of betrayal, honor and catharsis. Whereas Ford in his last films continued to eulogise and mythologise the Western cinema legend – albeit with an edge of cynicism, Peckinpah was determined to blow that mythology apart. William Holden and Robert Ryan are the two antagonists set against a mix of nihilism and heroism. Like Fuller, Peckinpah is an in your face director who in Wild Bunch amped the violence level to something not previously seen. The beginning and the end of the film in particular are set pieces that stun. “If they move, kill em” was William Holden’s line, but it was Peckinpah’s mantra. The sadness of death, the pain of betrayal; the reality of the end of an era permeate the film.
My Night at Maud’s (1969) Eric Rohmer:
Eric Rohmer, who with Claude Chabrol, wrote the first Hitchcock book was a Cahiers / New Wave alumni. The best of his 6 Moral Tales, Maud’s features Jean Louis Trintigant, Antoine Vitez and Francoise Fabian as a Catholic, a Marxist and a feminist who debate religion, philosophy, faith and morality. There is much talk and Rohmer’s camera is rigorously austere. Like Bresson, Rohmer is not afraid to conjure with intellectually demanding notions, but here there is humour and a kind of droll tolerance of the characters that is comforting.
The Conformist (1970) Bernardo Bertolucci:
Set in both pre World War 2 Italy and at the time of the fall of Mussolini, Bertolucci’s political thriller features Jean-Louis Trintignant as the conformist – so keen to fit in with the prevailing political mores that he will kill his former friend and mentor. Bertolucci combines a European version of film noir with sexual and political ambiguity. The politics of collaboration are analysed through the prism of sexual trauma and the film has an extraordinary beauty captured by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro.
Get Carter (1971) Mike Hodges:
The greatest British gangster film ever. Michael Caine’s Jack Carter goes up from London to Newcastle to investigate the death of his brother. When he arrives – much to the chagrin of his London bosses – he tears apart the city’s organised crime – one villain at a time - to ascertain who was responsible for his brother’s death and dispatches them one by one. A gritty realism prevails – overlaid with Roy Budd’s lyrical score. And a top cast including Britt Ekland, John Osborne and Ian Hendry are expertly utilised by Hodges. A powerful revenge piece that is violent, tough and
unyielding, it is nonetheless filled with dark wry South London humour. Once again the narrative is the maverick individual against the system and Caine having achieved his revenge is gunned down in a grim conclusion. Mike Hodges brings style and drive to this surprisingly moving tale.
Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant (1972) Rainer Werner Fassbinder:
Based on Fassbinder’s play this intricate claustrophobic tale of sexual politics rivals Sirk and Cukor in its story of a rich woman designer in a sadomasochistic involvement with her female secretary who falls for another woman and thus the tables are turned in the relationship. It’s a dark piece about power and manipulation set against a gorgeous background of fashion, design and music. Margit Carstenssen as Petra and Hanna Schyulla as the new lover are exceptional.
The single apartment set allows Fassbinder’s camera to track endlessly around Petra and the mannequin-filled room and maintain a Brechtian emotional distance. The film is full of symbols both of cinema: All about Eve, The Blue Angel and Lifeboat and music – La Traviatta, the Platters. Fassbinder made 33 films over a short career. This is his best.
The Godfather I (1972) Francis Ford Coppola:
Coppola’s dynastic tale about the passing of control of a criminal empire by the father to the reluctant son. Marlon Brando and Al Pacino inhabit their roles from the inside out and the film is rightly considered the greatest epic gangster movie made. The interior workings of the Mafia are laid out by Coppola in full operatic style. Deep dark shadow focus on its scenes both large scale and intimate. Death and family mixed together – a parable for American business or America itself. And like so many great works of cinema – a story of change as drugs take over from protection, booze and graft as the crime business driver. For many Apocalypse Now is the Coppola film to treasure; for the rest there is The Godfather.
The Long Goodbye (1973) Robert Altman:
A hip retelling of the Chandler story. Elliot Gould is both the least likely Phillip Marlowe and the most amusing. The noir world remains: standover men; gangsters, crooked cops; cheating wives and casual murder – but added to it is a brassy showbiz feel of low rent Hollywood and a weirdly anachronistic blend of 50s and 70s. Altman uses his trademark sound overlays and multiple arrangements of the song by John Williams and Johnny Mercer to highlight change and to play with the structures of noir prefiguring Tarantino and the post-modern ironies of self reflexive cinema.
“It’s OK with me” says Gould as he pads around his apartment and the late night city trying to trick his cat into eating used cat food and to survive hardboiled L.A for 90 minutes. There is a murder, a missing person and a psycho writer stunningly played by Sterling Hayden and a totally unexpected ending. I was never a major Altman fan (Nashville – forget about it!) but The Long Goodbye puts him on the list for me.
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) John Carpenter:
Avowed Hawks admirer John Carpenter takes Rio Bravo and turns it on its head. An almost closed-down police station with minimal staff is commandeered by the crew of a prison bus that breaks down and the precinct is attacked by a bunch of bikers and hoodlums trying to free the prisoners inside. Taut, lean and beautifully photographed by Doug Knapp in cinemascope and powered by Carpenter’s eclectic music score, Assault on Precinct 13 has the outgunned cops and prisoners fighting off the horde of attackers together. The Hawksian group, updated to the 70s, has to survive for 90 minutes as relationships and skills are tested. The famous “ice cream cone” scene where the little girl gets the wrong flavour, goes back to change it and is blasted away is extraordinary even by the standards of Peckinpah. Non-stop visceral action. Carpenter went on to Halloween fame.
Obsession (1976) Brian De Palma:
Another American director on the rise – Brian de Palma – in tandem with script writer Paul Schrader reinterprets Vertigo. Here Cliff Robertson’s wife and daughter are killed when a kidnapping/ransom plot goes wrong. 17 years later he appears to be given the chance to live his life over. Here Genevieve Bujold is the doppelganger in the style of Kim Novak. The beginning and ending of Obsession are very powerful as the combination of Bernard Hermann’s music (his second last score) and Vilmos Zsigmond’s cinematography erupt into lyrical melodramatic excess. Robertson’s obsession mirrors De Niro in the upcoming Taxi Driver and has a similar slightly creepy edge that of course becomes even weirder when the surprising reveal is disclosed.
Taxi Driver (1976) Martin Scorsese:
Taxi Driver marked the spring into the spotlight of a new talent in Martin Scorsese who drew on the classic film grammar written by the great auteurs of the 20s through 60s and went off in a revolutionary – but not really radical – direction. It also was the second of writer (and later director) Paul Schrader’s great screenplays. De Niro’s ravaged Vietnam vet prowling the New York streets with Bernard Hermann’s last score on the track recalls John Wayne in The Searchers.
Scorsese would return to this reference later with Nicolas Cage in Bringing Out the Dead. It is arguable De Niro’s best performance and it introduced us to an “adult” Jodie Foster – standing in for Natalie Wood. Not afraid of melodrama and yet modern in its analysis of psychosis and madness, we feel the anger of the film (and of the times) and Scorsese tops Peckinpah with the film’s blood soaked finale. “All the animals come out at night” is Travis Bickle’s signature line and it became Scorsese’s as his career delineated the tropes for good and evil, life and death in cinema.
Suspiria (1977) Dario Argento:
Dario Argento’s masterpiece (although some would argue for Deep Red), this is one of the scariest films ever made, topping Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion in tension, dread and madness. The gorgeous scope color cinematography and the endless dolly and crane shots lift us heaven-like into the dance academy’s coven of witches. Their progressive control over Jessica Harper and her breakdown mirrors that of Mia Farrow. But like a final girl in the slasher sub-genre, she fights back and evil is held at bay. Corman - like fire destroys the Academy in the finale.
The Goblin score powers the film along in tandem with a wonderfully inventive sound mix. Argento is one of the directors where style really does count and we accept the fairy tale setting without question driven along by the camera. It is a great test for script purists who require every dot connected. That is not Argento – but it does not matter.
Driver (1978) Walter Hill:
Walter Hill took on the mantle of Hawks in the 70s and 80s as a director capable of working in multiple genres – but with a penchant for action neo-noir. Driver is his riff on Jean Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai and stars Ryan O’Neal as a get away car driver who wants to retire. He speaks little during the film. He is consummate professional doing his job – but with a modern dose of angst and alienation. Stripped down and minimalist, Isabelle Adjani and Bruce Dern add to the cool vibe of the film. Los Angeles looks like it did in Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A - both mysterious and threatening. And the car chase sequences are among the best ever filmed.
Hardcore (1979) Paul Schrader:
Schrader returns to The Searchers as a source as mid western businessman George C Scott comes to L.A to try to find his missing daughter who has been swept up in the world of porn. Calvinist Schrader goes on a tour - first of discovery, then of destruction as he searches for his daughter. Much like Wayne, Scott is faced with the question – will he get his daughter back and if he does what will she be? A film of brutal pain and power.
Like Bresson, Schrader considers grace virtue and sin, but manages to explore the pragmatism of Scott’s character as he begins to infiltrate the porn scene and is forced to balance his faith with the grim realism of what he sees.
American Gigolo (1980) Paul Schrader:
Paul Schrader’s pinnacle of cool (unlike the gritty Hardcore) features Richard Gere as a male escort who falls into a series of noir like excesses spiralling into an abyss. Schrader is often criticised for being an emotionally reserved director but for me that is his charm. Gere’s character tries to get in touch with his feelings throughout the film and ultimately redeems himself. It's Bressonian in its depth of pain and grief (Gere is like the criminal in Pickpocket) who we feel for despite his cult hero status. Georgio Moroder’s disco score provides the surface sheen to a dark tale of loneliness.
Dressed to Kill (1980) Brian De Palma:
De Palma’s erotic melodrama is my favourite of his early – middle period films awash with long dialogue free tracking shots driven by Pino Donaggio’s beautiful score. Multiple dream sequences, twists and double twists bring the film to a Hitchcock level and Angie Dickenson is one of De Pama’s greatest leads here.
Extraordinarily intricate murder sequences blend with a mix of fear and desire, where guilt and sin have a price; And seeking forgiveness can get you killed. The museum scene sequence is one of cinema’s great moments of pure filmmaking; as is the elevator murder. And the blood is red. You either get De Pama or you don’t and if you don’t, you shouldn’t be in movies.
Ms 45 (1981) Abel Ferrara:
Perhaps the toughest revenge picture ever and vying with The Bad Lieutenant as Ferrara’s best. In this down and dirty piece of New York set exploitation a mute seamstress (Zoe Tameilis) is raped and brutalised first by a mysterious assailant (played by Ferrara) and then by a burglar. She manages to kill the burglar, keeps his 45 and cuts up the body. She then goes on a killing spree. At a Halloween party dressed as a nun she is molested by her boss and kills him and the rest of the partygoers, until a woman colleague finally kills her. This is raw primitive feminism and gender warfare that far surpasses Ï spit on your Grave in impact and symbolism.
Nicholas St John, Ferrara’s original writing partner in crime, layers on the Dante’s Inferno of down-town New York in the early 80s to frightening effect. Ferrara was criticised for taking an ambiguous view of his vigilante avenger – but his detached overview to me recalls Preminger and is as understandable.
Blade Runner (1982) Ridley Scott:
Perhaps the greatest sci fi film ever – certainly no one has painted a dystopian future more intricately than Ridley Scott does here and to this day it’s the best screen adaptation of a Phillip K. Dick short story. Harrison Ford is a neo noir private detective in 2019 – not unlike Eddie Constantine In Godard’s Alphaville and Sean Young is the femme fatale. A future landscape is beautifully created by Douglas Trumbull – a mix of old and new in an environment destroyed by industrialism and war. Paranoia prevails. One of cinema’s many discussion points is your preference for Tony Scott versus Ridley Scott and while my taste runs to Tony over the collective body of work, Blade Runner is the most satisfying film either of them have made. Multiple versions of the film now exist – with and without a narrative voice over - but all play on the fundamental Dick question: “What is humanity”? “What is the relationship between man and machine”? Sean Young’s replicant makes Ford’s Deckard debate those questions.
A Better Tomorrow (1986) John Woo
Set in Hong Kong, this film even more than Woo’s subsequent The Killer established him as a master of modern crime and a certain kind of kinetic ultra violence. Two brothers – one a cop and one a criminal - has been a matrix for many a 30s and 40s movie, but Woo ups the melodrama and throws in operatic flourishes that are Wagnerian in scope. Woo takes the violent tableau of Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch to a whole new level. Chow Yun Fat and Leslie Cheung are perfectly cast as the edged out crim trying to push Cheung’s brother (Ti Lung) back into crime and the about to graduate cop respectively. Extraordinary stunts, gunplay and, of course, doves.
Salvador (1986) Oliver Stone:
Platoon (also 1986) is the film many cite as Stone’s jump off but I prefer Salvador, the hard boiled in your face tale of Jimmy Woods and James Belushi as a photo journalist and his DJ buddy caught up in the dying days of the Samoza regime in El Salvador. Low budget hand -held with his anti US imperialism heart on his sleeve, Stone establishes his credentials as a political filmmaker here and at the same time as an expert in both action and emotion. And the beautiful score by Georges Delerue makes the sadness in the final scenes where Wood’s Salvadorian girlfriend is turned back at the US / Mexican border by customs officers and sent back to her near certain death even more poignant. Sure Stone can be bombastic and didactic but this low rent headline-splashed piece recalls for me Fuller at his best.
Near Dark (1987) Kathryn Bigelow:
Bigelow blends the western, the biker movie and the vampire genre in this anarchic piece written by her and Eric Red. A group of nomadic vampires in the contemporary mid-west allow a young man to join them. Bitten, he has to progressively adjust to their way of life as he falls for one of the group’s youngsters. In some ways reminiscent of Wes Cravens' The Hills Have Eyes the primitivism of the vampire group enables Bigelow to play with notions of evil much as she would subsequently do in Blue Steel. Fast paced and relentless, beautifully shot and post apocalyptic in its picture of the hell holes the group has to hide out in during the day, Bigelow presents the group as family in a very Hawksian way and with the same dry wit.
Days of Being Wild (1990) Wong Kar-wei:
The first collaboration between Wong and cinematographer Chris Doyle is a beautiful romantic tale of a Hong Kong playboy (Leslie Cheung) whose cavalier emotional involvements leads to massive motional damage to his various girlfriends and the impact on them of his rejection. Full of extraordinary images, in some ways its tale of alienated youth is a throwback to Nicholas Ray’s Rebel without a Cause but its free form largely unstructured look is very different to Ray’s approach.
Silent movie love is updated in a very controlled way. Like with Fassbinder there is a gay subtext, but love is love and love in neon, unrequited or not, spins through the 89 minutes until its ending which adds more than a touch of pain and poignancy as Cheung heads off to the Philippines to find his real birth mother.
Unforgiven (1992) Clint Eastwood:
This is the film that beyond doubt confirmed Clint Eastwood as the greatest director currently working in world cinema. A final analysis of the western – of Siegel and Leone obviously – but of all of the great classicists and those who came after in the 60s and 70s. Here we have violence depicted for what it is, mythology eviscerated and the past re examined. Opening at a grave-side and ending in a barrage of vengeance the film is chock full of memorable lines that are Eastwood’s musing on this genre; “Deserving’s got nothing to do with it”, “I’ve killed just about anything that walks or crawled at one time or another” and “We all got it comin’ kid”. Eastwood’s Bill Muny is the gunslinger grown old at a moment where modernity is around the corner, but it remains his job to try to bring a moral balance to proceedings. And Gene Hackman and Richard Harris equal Eastwood’s strength and power on screen. But moral balance or not, Eastwood shoots the film through with bitter brutal pointlessness and even his own character here is totally ambiguous and unknowable. I doubt there will be a western better that this going forward in cinema history.
Casino (1995) Martin Scorsese:
Scorsese’s epic saga of the 70s and 80s in Las Vegas is a tale of friendship and betrayal – a three way between casino boss Robert De Niro; his wife Sharon Stone and his friend Joe Pesci. Pressures build as the government and FBI close in on the Mafia stings and scams and only DeNiro survives the changing of the Vegas order. Almost 20 years after Taxi Driver Scorsese is now an accomplished stylist and a director of large scale studio funded epics but his penchant for violence language and obsession remains. We watch a group of characters become rich and famous only to self destruct. His use of music of the times (here 50 vintage pop songs) remains key to the way in which he creates the past, but also in his detail.
Like Hitchcock, Scorsese’s Catholic obsessions with guilt are at large here. As is the impossibility of the artist to find peace however hard he tries. Clearly a veiled self portrait, the De Niro character is Scorsese looking back on his career and analysing what he has managed to wrest from the machine
The Limey (1999) Steve Soderberg:
Instead of Michael Caine going down from London to Newcastle, here Terence Stamp travels from London to Los Angeles. His mission is to find out what happened to his estranged daughter. The stand off between the loner, fresh out of water, hero – the ex-crim just out of jail - and the rich slick Big Sur lifestyle of Peter Fonda, Stamp’s daughter’s boyfriend is starkly presented and Stamp finds more common ground with Fonda’s bodyguard Luis Guzman than he does with Fonda. Not as tough as Get Carter and with the anti hero surviving, The Limey is nonetheless one of Soderberg’s most interesting films. Like Hawks, he has skilfully moved across every genre and brings a mix of old school classicism and modern nihilism to bear. “Tell him I’m coming” says Stamp – reminding us of Lee Marvin in Point Blank as much as Caine. And again a thriller where remembrance of what could have been cuts our hero to the quick.
Kill Bill Vol 1 (2003) Quentin Tarantino:
To date Tarantino’s most enjoyable compilation of genre cinema’s greatest hits. We experience Japanese swordsmanship. American international biker girl killers; Michael Parks, a comatose with a Patrick spit and the voice of David Caradine as well as Blaxploitation and spaghetti westerns.
Tarantino takes the 1973 Japanese film Lady Snowblood and turns it into a zippy, ironic tale. What Tarantino’s films manage to do like no others is provide a treasure chest for film enthusiasts to delve into and justify their cinephilic obsessions as we enjoy the company of a filmmaker who lives in a world of cinema – completely separate and apart from any real world concerns. So the humour one finds in it derives from this plus the plundered music tracks from equally obscure or forgotten sources. His cinema is not irony but a fetishist love of the sound and image that make up cult cinema.
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