Category: Classic Dramas


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Among artists of a certain stripe, there’s an uncontrollable urge to make art of meaning, and if they can’t make art that contextualizes some aspect of the human experience, it can drive these artists to mania and depression. And while art that forces us to examine our place in the universe is often the most rewarding, we can’t discount the power of entertainment and escape. Situated at the tail end of Woody Allen’s transitional period from his early comedies to his later “serious” films, 1980’s Stardust Memories is a pitch-perfect encapsulation of one artist’s struggle against his own commercial talents as he desperately craves the ability to craft work of genuine import. And, in the process, he discovers maybe you can do both.

By 1980, Woody Allen had won a Best Director and Best Picture Oscar for Annie Hall, and Manhattan was a turning point for him as a dramatic storyteller, but the mixed critical reaction to Interiors and the even more mixed audience reaction to the increasingly dark and realistic nature of his films was taking its toll on Allen. He felt pigeonholed as a director of silly farces, but Allen cut his teeth on foreign art house cinema, and he wanted to make works more inspired by Bergman and Fellini than the Marx brothers. And Stardust Memories is a stunning work of art as self-therapy as Allen reconciles these warring impulses in a feat of pure cinematic magic truly worthy of its clear cinematic peer, 8 1/2.

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I harped on this issue for one of the other websites I write for, but we live in the age of the anti-hero. It’s easy to understand why. Morally ambiguous leading men fit our fractured, cynical age. But, at the same time, the world still needs heroes, and we don’t have nearly enough well-written ones today. When heroes do arrive, they are products of trite, melodramatic sentimentality with no grounding in the real world even when they’re based off of real figures. But, when a true story comes of a regular man fighting a monumental fight simply because it’s the right thing to do, and the film is devoid of cliche or obvious manipulation, you must stand up and applaud. And Serpico is one of those films.

Sidney Lumet’s Serpico is one of the rare films that has it all. It has a thrilling story about one cop’s stand against the entrenched corruption of the NYPD. It has an important message about how easy it is for corruption to become institutionalized and how difficult it is to cleanse corruption from major institutions once it gains a foothold. It has a magnetic and charming hero who has more dimensions than you’d expect. You have a firebrand performance from Al Pacino at the prime of his career. And, you have the marvelously understated direction of Sidney Lumet. There is no audience this film isn’t right for.

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Serpico is the true story of NYPD officer Frank Serpico (Glengarry Glen Ross‘s Al Pacino), an honest man in a police department where practically every other cop is on the take. Frank has a college education, listens to opera, speaks Spanish, and takes ballet lessons to impress a girl. He has a long beard and dresses like a hippie and that alone would be enough to garner the ire of everyone else in the department. But, when Frank is placed in the NYPD plainclothesman division, he quickly learns that his fellow cops are as crooked and dirty as the criminals they put behind bars, and the Italian organized crime syndicates have most of his coworkers in their pockets.

And, Serpico’s life becomes a series of intimidations and harassments from his fellow officers. On his first day in the plainsclothes division, another office slips him an envelope full of money which Serpico gives to his commanding officer, and nobody looks into the bribery. Serpico refuses to take money beyond his salary, and every day he feels his life is in danger because his fellow cops think he’s going to get them arrested and that they can’t trust him. Serpico is bounced from unit to unit as no department in the NYPD knows what to do with him, and the corruption is a cancer eating away at one of the largest police departments in the world. And it isn’t until a few of his fellow officers decide to make a stand with him that Serpico is able to make any change, but his life is far from a happy ending.

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Young Al Pacino is as good an actor as any other man that ever lived. Although his 90s/2000s output is a caricature of his early roles, there has never been another actor with such a coiled physical presence. Pacino in this or (a rare excellent later role) Glengarry Glen Ross or The Godfather: Part II has the ability to switch from boiler-plate tension to a controlled explosion. And Serpico’s entire arc is built around feeling his world closing in around him and not being able to trust anyone, and nobody besides Pacino could play that man and make it feel so documentary real.

And, that element of documentary realism is critical to what makes Serpico work. If Serpico weren’t a true story, it would probably border on unbelievable (I want to read the non-fiction book it’s based on to see how closely it hews to the truth). But, Sidney Lumet shoots the film almost like a documentary with a dash of the stylistic touches of the political thrillers of the 1970s (think All the President’s Men). Though there are obvious elements of the film that are spiced up to create a movie, unlike virtually every crime thriller ever made, Serpico feels completely grounded in reality.

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Also, Serpico is clearly a hero, but he is also clearly a man. Serpico doesn’t do what he does because he dreams of glory or being the greatest cop; he just wants to do what he thinks is right. And no one else in the police department wants him to be a good man because it represents the antithesis of how they lives their lives. And that’s what makes a hero. Serpico is doing what’s right with no expectation of a reward, and Serpico refuses to romanticize Serpico’s actions. They just contextualize it as him not knowing any other way to live his life, and that allows the film to make a moral statement without turning Serpico into a Messianic figure (although his hippie beard gives him a visual allegory for Jesus).

I’m at work right now, and I’m training a new hire so I’m going to bring this review to an early close. It’s not much of a stretch to say that Serpico joins End of Watch and Training Day as being one of the greatest cop movies I’ve ever seen. It works as an entertaining tale of one man battling insurmountable odds, but it works on so many other levels, and like Lumet’s best works, it’s a technical marvel. For anyone that loves cop films and the vein of classic cinema that allowed excursions away from the main plot so that characters can breathe, Serpico is a can’t miss classic film with Al Pacino at the height of his career.

Final Score: A

 

TheManWhoShotLibertyValance1

When I think of John Ford, I think of the wide open Western expanses that define practically every shot of classics like The Searchers. When I think of John Wayne movies, I think of the straightforward moralism of The Cowboys. When I think of James Stewart (barring the final act of Vertigo), I think of the archetypal “Aw, shucks” All-American of It’s a Wonderful Life. So, when all three combine to make such a jarringly out-of-character film for all involved, it should be no secret that I found The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance to be among the most interesting of the “classic” Westerns this side of High Noon.

Far more a commentary on the death of the Wild West than a traditional oater, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is unlike any Western of the era or, honestly, any other film of John Ford’s career. Removing itself from the iconic Western vistas that are Ford’s metier and placing itself in crowded homes and claustrophobic streets, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance captures the transformation of the West from a lawless frontier to the first stirrings of civilization and law & order. And most surprisingly of all, the film has something honest and fresh to say on ethics that remains fresh 52 years later.

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After his stagecoach is robbed by the brutal bandit and bully Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and he’s beaten within an inch of his life, East Coast lawyer Ransom Stoddard (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation‘s James Stewart) is rescued by the rough but generally decent gunslinger and rancher Tom Doniphan (The Longest Day‘s John Wayne). Ransom has had every penny to his name and every last worldly possession stolen by the untouchable Liberty Valance and as he has to start from scratch to recover his assets and make a name for himself in the dangerous town of Shinbone.

Shinbone’s Marshall, Link Appleyard (Andy Devine), is a fat, slovenly coward and even though everybody in town knows Liberty Valance is a crook and a murderer, he won’t lift a finger to bring him to justice. Tom is the only man in town with enough nerve and talent with a gun to stand up to Liberty, but Liberty knows well enough to stay out of Tom’s way to avoid taking a bullet from him. But Ransom wants Liberty brought to justice. However, unlike every other Western hero ever, justice to ransom doesn’t mean a shoot out in the streets. It means a trial and jail. But, in a town without a competent criminal justice system, Tom’s way of the bullet could be the only true answer.

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The film’s framing device is that decades later, Ransom Stoddard has returned to Shinbone for Tom’s funeral. Ransom is now a U.S. Senator and he could be the Vice-President of the United States if he wished. And, through a story given to a local newspaperman, we hear the real story of the legend that shot him into political stardom. But, in actuality, it gives the film an example to delve into one of the most important philosophical debates of all time: What is more valuable, truth or results? And, to an extent, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comes down on the utilitarian side of that equation.

I can’t explore those themes too deeply without ruining the film (although, considering the fact that it’s 52 years old, I wouldn’t feel too guilty if I did), but time and time again, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance proves itself to be more psychologically and philosophically minded than the vast majority of its late 50s/early 60s peers. The film is essentially an argument that the American West that Ford himself helped to mythologize in the American conscious had to end, and that the typical John Wayne heroes of the past didn’t have a place in the modern world.

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James Stewart plays a character that is simultaneously a deconstruction of the Mr. Smith Goes to Washington typical Stewart idealist as well as an argument for why society needs men like him. I’ve probably said this before on this blog, but James Stewart is one of my all-time favorite actors (not necessarily one of the ones I think is the best), and along with Vertigo, this is certainly one of his most complex and demanding roles. And as we Ransom struggling to balance his desire for law & order and due process against the brutal realities of the old West, Stewart captures all of the character’s frustration and desperation.

John Wayne and Lee Marvin also shine in the two primary supporting roles (even if Wayne gets top billing in the film, Ransom is the main character). Tom may ultimately be a good man, but he’s also a bitter roughneck who isn’t afraid to be a bully when he needs to make a point. Along with The Searchers, it’s one of the more complicated characters of Wayne’s usually pure white hat career. And Lee Marvin might not have the most fully-written character in the titular Liberty Valance, but he makes the man drip venom and anger, and he steals every scene he’s in, even if he’s not afraid to chew the scenery a little bit.

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I wrote half of this review last night and True Detective is coming on in five minutes (seriously, watch that show; it’s the best new HBO show since The Wire and easily the best show on TV right now) so I’ll draw this review to a close. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is the Western that even non-Western fans can get behind. In fact, it’s so drama-driven that fans of more traditional, action-driven old West epics may find it to be a bit of a bore. But for everyone with an open mind for the possibilities of Western storytelling, it’s a must see classic deserving of the title.

Final Score: A-

 

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I’m uncomfortable with the fact that I’ve only seen four Ingmar Bergman films. Having just watched The Silence, I’ve seen his Trilogy of Faith (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence) as well as Persona. I’m uncomfortable with this fact because, after just four films, I’ve become convinced that Ingmar Bergman is the greatest film-maker to ever live, outpacing competitors like Terrence Malick or Fellini by miles.  For a man whose films have a reputation as being inaccessible and detached, Bergman’s cinematic output radiates the total emotional spectrum of life with an insight and honesty that no other filmmaker is capable of matching.

As I mentioned, The Silence is the final films of Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith, though the films only constitute a trilogy in a thematic sense, and The Silence seems somewhat removed from the religious questions of the first two films. If Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Light look at a world where men suffer because they can not find God, The Silence looks at a world devoid of even the desire to reach out and touch him. And it is a dark, cruel world indeed. Out of the four Bergman films I’ve seen, The Silence is the darkest and most disturbing and easily the most difficult to solve, but when the pieces of this particular Bergman puzzle fall into place, it reveals itself as one of his most complex and rewarding works.

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Like all of Bergman’s films, The Silence has a simple story that belies magnificent characters and soul-searching themes. Two sisters, the sexually liberated Anna (Gunnel Lindblom) and the intellectual but sickly Ester (Winter Light‘s Ingrid Thulin), are traveling through an unnamed European country with Anna’s precocious son, Johan (Jorgen Lindstrom). When Ester’s illness interrupts their train ride home, they stay at a post hotel where the emotional, psychological, and sexual tension in this family is allowed to fester and take hold.

There is so much more to the film than that cursory explanation, but if you’re anything like me, part of the pleasure of watching The Silence for the first time will be trying to struggle to understand what it’s about. And I won’t lie. It wasn’t until halfway through the movie that Ingmar Bergman’s intentions with this film became clear. Through a Glass Darkly and Winter Lighare both fairly straightforward by Bergman standards, and The Silence is a Lynchian fever dream in comparison. The surrealist flourishes throughout the whole picture seem superfluous at first, but then you understand them, and you’re bowled over by Bergman’s extraordinary attention to detail.

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Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is famous for its exploration of religious doubt, but The Silence confirms my suspicions that even more than tackling the Silence of God, the trilogy is about our failures to communicate with each other as human beings. The film is called The Silence, and maybe it refers to the complete lack of God’s presence in this work, but to me, it signifies the utter silence in these women’s lives (and the boy’s) as they are unable to forge real connections with each other. Much of The Silence (particularly the first act) could work as a silent movie, and throughout the whole film, everyone is trying to connect with someone else, and no one succeeds because we’re all too trapped in our own heads and our own problems to notice anyone else.

It is significant, for example, that the sisters stop in a country where Anna, a translator who speaks fluent English, German, French, and Swedish, doesn’t speak a word of the language. Unless the sisters and Johan are speaking to each other, they can’t speak meaningfully to anyone else. And they can barely have meaningful conversations with each other. Ester seems to harbor sexual feelings towards her more liberated sister and can’t be affectionate with anyone else. Johan won’t even let Ester anywhere near him. Johan only feels affection towards his mother (perhaps too much affection), and Anna’s life is so devoid of any meaning of its own (and much resentment towards her controlling sister) that she’ll sleep with anyone just to feel something but never does.

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Outside of Terrence Malick’s recent ouvre (particularly The Tree of Life and To the Wonder), this is easily one of the most beautifully shot films I’ve reviewed since Elvira Madigan. Bergman’s long-time cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, began his fruitful collaboration with Bergman during this Trilogy, and The Silence is the ultimate expression visually of what Bergman was trying to achieve. The deep and cavernous shadows, the painterly composition of every shot, the use of close-ups that reminds you why the close-up was invented in the first place; every visual aspect of the film is sheer perfection.

And, it wouldn’t be a Bergman film without ferocious performances (the only director I can think of who can coax such natural and ferocious performances from his stars is Kenneth Lonergan) from his leads. Like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, Bergman crafts some of the most memorable female roles in cinema history, and Ester and Anna are no exception. It’s hard to say who the lead of the film is because both women seem to have an equal amount of screen on time though I think it’s safe to say that Anna carries the thematic burdens of the film most impressively.

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For an actress that I had never heard of up until November when I saw Winter Light for the first time, Ingrid Thulin has quickly jumped to the top of my list of the greatest actresses of the 20th century which includes Women in Love‘s Glenda Jackson and (obviously) Meryl Streep and Katharine Hepburn. Only Glenda Jackson has managed to make such an impression with so few performances. Her performance seemed a bit over-the-top at first, but once you realized the depth of Ester’s suffering, it all makes sense and her climactic scene in of the film’s final moments is one of the most powerful in any Bergman film I’ve yet seen. And, of course, Gunnel Lindblom, is just as good as the tempestuous and deeply sexual Anna.

I’ve written some 3000 odd words today for both this blog and the one where I write for my cousin. To say that my brain is spent would be an understatement. It feels less like mush and more like mush that has been speeding through a psychotic carnival ride. So let me leave you with this. Bergman’s Trilogy of Faith is one of the great cinematic achievements of the 1960s and filmmaking in general. The Silence isn’t as easy to pierce as its first two entries, but if you’re willing to make the effort, it riches are almost beyond compare.

Final Score: A+

 

Vertigo1It is one of my great hopes for this blog that I watch an established Hollywood classic that I had seen for the first time when I was younger and didn’t particularly enjoy and suddenly find myself transformed by the film’s power upon this viewing where my tastes have matured after three years of reviewing films. Sadly, it hasn’t happened yet. Although I’ve watched films like Lawrence of Arabia or 2001: A Space Odyssey which I loathed as a teenager but appreciated their technical merits as an adult, I’ve yet to find a film that I’ve completely changed my mind about. 1958’s Vertigo, long considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, is the closest one of these films has come yet, but it, too, falls short.

Vertigo is the easy answer for most critics when asked to name Alfred Hitchcock’s best film (my money is on Rear Window or North by Northwest), and it was recently named the greatest film of all time in a Sight & Sound critic and director’s poll. When I first saw it as a kid, I thought it was an almost irredeemable bore, and now, a month shy of being 25, I still think that’s true. For the first hour and forty minutes. Then, the film’s major twist is revealed and Vertigo starts picking up momentum. And it closes out on one of the best final sequences of any film ever (the only ending that immediately springs to mind as being better is Cinema Paradiso). I just wish the first hour and forty minutes weren’t slower than Jordan Belfort on one too many Quaaludes.

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John “Scottie” Ferguson (Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation‘s James Stewart) is a retired police detective who has developed a crippling case of acrophobia, the fear of heights, after he is indirectly responsible for the falling death of a fellow policeman. Scottie’s acrophobia has developed itself as a dizzying vertigo that appears any time he’s near heights. After Scottie’s retirement from the police force, he is asked by an old college friend, Gavin Elster (Tom Helmore), to shadow the friend’s wife, Madeleine (Kim Novak), because Gavin believes that Madeleine has been possessed by the spirit of a deceased Spanish countess. But the truth is far stranger as Scottie begins to fall in love with the woman he’s meant to follow.

I won’t ruin any more of the plot of Vertigo for those who have somehow managed to not see this film over the years. Not that Vertigo goes out of its way to hide the film’s most famous plot twist. Viewers know what’s really going on half an hour before Scottie finds out. But, the transformations, both real and imagined, that occur in the film’s closing acts make up for the turgid spell that comes before. And if you don’t know what’s really happening with Madeleine, Scottie, and a new friend Scottie makes later on, I don’t want to be the one to spoil it for you.

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Vertigo is a Hitchcock film, and from beginning to end, it looks it which makes the film soporific first half a little easier to swallow. Hitchcock’s camera is light and fluid (much credit must be given to cinematographer, Robert Burks), and there are extended sections of the film with little to no dialogue where Hitchcock lets the story unfold through the sheer power of image. It’s fascinating and, for technically minded viewers, a treat to watch a film-maker who understood the value of composition better than any director since Sergei Eisenstein. But, somewhere along the lines, the pretty camera work grows stale, and you keep waiting for the story to finally kick in.

And therein lies Vertigo‘s most fatal sin. It’s opening stretch is vital to establishing the film’s powerful pay-off, but it all unfolds at such a languid pace. Scenes last too long. Hitchcock floods the scenes with so much compositional detail, and they certainly invite the viewer into Vertigo‘s world, but they are just bandages masking weak storytelling. Scottie is a flat character for 60% of the film, until he isn’t and that leads to the film’s astounding denouement. Unfortunately, Hitchcock doesn’t give the audience any glimpses of the darkness simmering beneath his surface beforehand.

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But, when Jimmy Stewart is finally given real material to work with, he pulls one of cinema’s all time “against type” performances out of it. Dark, possessive, angry, paranoid. These aren’t adjectives we ever use to describe Stewart who is one of the definitive All-American movie stars. But Scottie takes a tumble down a well of pitch-black, misogynistic darkness, and Jimmie Stewart’s performance is rightfully one of the truly iconic performances in Hollywood’s history. Kim Novak is also marvelous as the mysterious Madeleine, and Madeleine is certainly one of Hitchcock’s greatest female creations.

I would talk about what makes the final sequence so brilliant (and so deliciously subversive of the feminine identity roles of Hollywood’s Golden Age as well as the traditional values of masculine heroes), but I don’t want to spoil what happens in the film’s closing moments. Had the first half of the film been half as good as it’s second half, this would clearly be one of the true greatest movies of all time. As it is, it finishes on a note of absolute perfection that few films have since touched, but it isn’t enough to excuse the film’s unfortunately dull start.

Final Score: B+

 

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Alfred Hitchcock once famously explained the difference between a surprise and suspense as the difference between a bomb suddenly exploding underneath a table versus knowing the bomb is there and wondering when it will go off. This can be extrapolated to horror films. Jump-scare horror movies work on surprise. They work on the killer appearing from nowhere and terrorizing those on screen and providing a momentary jolt to the audience. The best horror movies survive on atmosphere. They fill the audience with dread and you can never tell whether the scares were intentionally crafted by the film-maker or your imagination is playing tricks on you.

An adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s novel The Haunting of Hill House, 1963’s The Haunting is a true classic of the suspenseful school of horror film-making. It’s far from perfect. The lead actress’s performance is actively grating and over-the-top, and elements of the film are hilariously dated. But, when it comes to the power of set design to create pure atmosphere, The Haunting is almost peerless (something the awful 1999 remake failed to understand). Throw in the film’s powerful ability for implication and suggestion, and you have a classic horror that knows how to burrow right into the primal fear centers of an audience without any of the blood and guts that sadly define modern horror.

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When British scientist Dr. John Markway (Richard Johnson) hears rumors about the haunted Hill House in New England, he has to investigate it. Despite nearly a century of rumors of untimely deaths and tenants who refused to stay in the house for more than a week, Markway assembles a group of individuals who have been touched by the supernatural to stay in the house and to help him confirm any haunting if it’s real. And, with that summons, Eleanor Lance (Julie Harris), Theodora (Claire Bloom), and Luke Sanderson (Django Unchained‘s Russ Tamblyn) arrive at the home for a stay they’ll wish they’d avoided.

Eleanor Lance is a perennially nervous and clinically anxious old maid who’s spent the last 11 years caring for her sickly mother. And, now that the mother has passed away, Eleanor lives with her sister and her sister’s husband. Eleanor’s life is fueled by self-doubt and self-loathing and the chance to get away to the Hill House is a god-send despite the fact that the house is haunted. Theodora is a bohemian artist with ESP and also a lesbian which the film makes fairly obvious without ever coming right out and saying it. And, Luke is set to to inherit Hill House when his aunt, the current owner, dies. By the end of the film, he’s wishing he didn’t have the property.

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Beyond the atmosphere and production design (which I’ll get to in a second), The Haunting succeeds because like the best horror movies (The Exorcist, Let the Right One In, The House of the Devil, etc.), it understands the power of building up your characters before you put them through hell. Though the film’s characterizations are certainly classic Hollywood caricatures in bold strokes, I still felt like I knew the people in this movie. Nell is terrified of her own shadow. Theodora is a shameless flirt who may be less a psychic and more naturally observant. Luke is a cocky playboy and cad. And Dr. Markway is an eccentric scientist who is both enamored by the supernatural and without the proof he needs to know he’s just not crazy.

And because we knew these men and women, it adds layers to the film. There’s a certain element of “what’s actually happening” in the film which works in it favor (rather than clearly spelling everything out for viewers), and because of Nell’s crippling anxiety, there’s a question of whether or not what’s happening is really occurring or simply in her head? In the remake, the Dr. Markway character was conducting a study on sleep deprivation, and throughout this whole film, I constantly wondered if the house wasn’t a psychological test he was performing (it isn’t).

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The only films I’ve watched for this blog where the set design and atmosphere of the film were this suffocating are The House of the Devil, The Descent, and Session 9, and on many levels, I think The Haunting outclasses them all. It’s attention to detail is positively Kubrick-esque (which of course makes me sad that I forgot The Shining on that list a sentence ago). The characters constantly remark on how Hill House feels alive, and because of the meticulous composition of shots and the unsettling construction of the house (with its bizarre angles and macabre decoration), you feel the dread of the film’s heroes.

And Robert Wise’s direction in general is something to applaud. I was struck over and over again during this viewing of the film about how great black & white photography is at capturing the essence of horror. I’m not saying that color films can’t be great horror (every other movie I’ve mentioned is in color), but the deep shadows and striking contrast in the film’s shots in Hill House made you constantly wonder what was hiding in every dark corner of the screen. Additionally, the film often utilizes bizarre and tilted (if not totally rotating) camera angles to increase the unsettling nature of the film.

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As I said though, the film isn’t perfect. Julie Harris’s performance is bad. Just plain and simple, she wasn’t suited for the role. Eleanor seems like a demanding role because the themes of her sexual frustration and neuroses are key to the supernatural elements of the film as well. Eventually, the “haunted house” seems to become an extension of her psychological maladies. And, she makes it too over-the-top. But, that (and additional smaller complaints about dated elements of the film) are no reason to not watch one of the best horror films of the 1960s. Just avoid the 90s remake like the plague.

Final Score: B+

 

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I’ve generally thought that the school of film criticism thought which says you should judge a film by the standards of when it was released is… and pardon my French… horse shit. From a technical perspective, The Birth of a Nation remains an astounding masterpiece, but its politics are as abhorrent today as they were in 1915. From the opposite end of the spectrum, yes, there are elements of Rebel Without a Cause which seem dated by modern standards, but its portrayal of teen angst (and subtle homoeroticism) has a universal, timeless appeal. The best movies are great no matter when they were made, and films that are simply great for their time are really only of interest to students of film history. 1948’s The Naked City plays hopscotch with my feelings on the matter. As one of Hollywood’s first great crime procedurals shot on location, it broke new ground in many ways, and while a healthy portion of the film has lost its luster over the years, the movie’s cinematography and tone kept me engaged through out and it remains a highly enjoyable proto-noir.

The Naked City was directed by French director Jules Dassin, most famous his French crime thriller, Rififi, though The Naked City couldn’t be more American, specifically more New Yorker, if it tried. There’s a lengthy montage at the beginning of the film where the movie’s producer, Mark Hellinger, explains that the movie was primarily shot on-location in the streets of Manhattan (and other boroughs as the movie progresses) and it lends an almost documentary feel to most of the film’s exterior shots. Though there are campy elements to the actual crime procedural at the heart of the film (it can’t decide if it wants to be hard-boiled noir or a light mystery), when the film is outside and walking the streets of the Big Apple, you feel lost in the titular naked city and no film before and few since have so aptly captured the chaos and everyday street life of New York City.

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After clothing store model Jean Dexter is found murdered in her high-rise apartment bath tub, old school NYPD homocide detective Dan Muldoon (Going My Way‘s Barry Fitzgerald) is called in to investigate the case. Though Dexter’s murder is staged to look like a drowning, Muldoon quickly deduces (I know I’m using that word wrong like Sherlock does) that it was murder, and the hunt begins to figure out who would kill the beautiful model. Muldoon is joined by his young and fresh-faced partner, Jimmy Halloran (Don Taylor), who gets to do all of the real leg work of the case, with an emphasis on leg work. And when Muldoon and Halloran find a handsome young swindler named Frank Niles (Howard Duff), they realize that there’s more to this case than they ever expected.

I don’t want to say any more and ruin the pleasure of diving into the twists and turns of The Naked City for the first time even though it’s a 66 year old movie. Because most of the pleasure of watching the film is watching one of the first really detailed crime procedurals in the cinema. This isn’t a Philip Marlowe/Sam Spade-style detective story. There are no tough guy private eyes. It’s a group of cops working leads and interrogating suspects. Only occasionally do hunches lead to major breakthroughs in the case. In fact, it’s safe to say that future movies like Zodiac or TV shows like The Wire owe their existence to The Naked City even if they would ultimately do the things The Naked City does, only better. And, unlike most modern crime procedurals (I’m looking at you Law & Order), the investigation rarely begins to feel stale.

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I’m not sure if The Naked City technically qualifies as a film noir even if it’s generally lumped in with most of the proto-noir films of the late 1940s. The movie feels a little too light-hearted at times to be true noir, but one can’t doubt the film’s cinematography carrying that noir banner. It is gorgeous. As mentioned earlier, the film’s exterior and on-location shots are stunning enough considering how rare they were for the time, but even the indoor shots make perfect use of shadow and striking composition. Jules Dassin is one of the film-makers most associated with inspiring the directors of the French New Wave, and his innovative camera techniques are on display throughout the whole film. For fans of cinematography, that aspect of The Naked City is worth your time alone.

Charming performances from Barry Fitzgerald and Don Taylor also help ease the film along. I doubt that Dan and Jimmy are cinema’s original old/young cop partner pair, but, I’m hard-pressed to name any from this era that were as immediately likeable and compelling. In one of the film’s sadly rare character driven moments, Jimmy comes home from work to spend some time with his wife, and you get a peek behind the veil of these cop’s lives. In fact, if the movie had spent even a little more time diving into the lives of its leads, it may have truly been a real classic rather than falling just short. Barry Fitzgerald (the only redeeming part of the abysmal Going My Way) was particularly appealing as the aged Muldoon, and I wanted to know more about this wizened cop veteran.

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And that lack of attachment to the characters ultimately proves to be the film’s biggest weakness. Don Taylor and Barry Fitzgerald make us care about their detectives through sheer force of performance and charm. The writing has nothing to do with it. Throw in an omni-present voice-over narration that vacillates between clever and too obvious, and The Naked City becomes unfortunately hit or miss for much of its running time. When the movie is hitting all of the right notes, it never quite reaches the heights of noir classics like Double Indemnity or Pickup on South Street but it’s a hell of a great time. One can only wish that the movie was able to maintain a high level of quality and interest from beginning to end, which it sadly can not.

Final Score: B+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin my review proper. We’re entering another “A+” heavy block after only two last time around. This will be number four for this block but I stand by every single one of these scores. This is partially attributable to the fact that I’m watching all of Ingmar Bergment’s Trilogy of Faith, and as of this review, two out of three of those films have gotten perfect marks. So, I haven’t suddenly lost my critical faculties. I’m just watching a lot of great films.)

Though I am now what Bertrand Russell called a “teapot agnostic,” I was a deeply religious child and teenager. But, and apologies to anyone this statement offends, religion caused me nothing but psychological torment and crippling neuroses. Beyond the deeper metaphysical questions (such as the Alpha and Omega or the concept of an eternal afterlife) that I would drive myself physically ill pondering, the Christian proscriptions towards sexual behavior nearly tore me to pieces during puberty. Although I always wanted to believe in God more than I actually did (more on that and how this whole rant relates to this film soon. I promise.), I didn’t finally give up on religion until I realized how insane it was that I was being consumed by self-loathing every time I was physically intimate with a girl I wasn’t even having sex with. Yet, according to Christianity, I was supposed to feel guilty for this, and I finally called bullshit.

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Perhaps, then, it’s his obsession with religious and sexual guilt that has drawn me so intensely to Ingmar Bergman (Persona). Bergman was the son of a strict Lutheran minister, and in every one of his films that I’ve ever seen, the battle between one’s own sexual urges and the external forces of religious coercion is omnipresent (among other bleak themes such as insanity and heartbreak). Bergman dwelled on these issues and exorcised his personal demons (and the overwhelming guilt of his religious upbringing) through his art, and for anyone who’s ever been consumed by these same themes, his films are required viewing (look no further than Woody Allen who battled the same existentialist themes throughout all of his best works).

And that theme of the nature of God and the suffering that man foists upon itself in order to hear the call and logic of a non-existent God has never been more emphasized in Bergman’s work than in his (apocryphally termed) “Trilogy of Faith.” The first film, Through a Glass Darkly dealt with the ordinary man’s inability to perceive or communicate with God. The only individual in the cast who ever sensed God’s presence was a schizophrenic young woman who then saw him as a malevolent spider god. And, the film became a commentary on how we seek the affection of God when we are unable to receive it from the people closest to us. The bleak and forceful Winter Light expands that then to a study of a man, whose job requires being a conduit for God’s voice encountering instead God’s silence.

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Gunnar Bjornstrand  plays the emotionally handicapped pastor, Tomas Ericsson. Holding sway over a run-down parish where only a handful of parishioners show up for Sunday Mass, Tomas’s heart isn’t in the clergy anymore and hasn’t been for years and years. At his empty mass, one of the church-goers is an outspoken atheist, Marta Lundberg (Ingrid Thulin), who only attends hoping that afterwards she can gain the affection of the widower pastor, who has consistently spurned her advances. Another two are a married couple who haven’t been to church in ages but only made it to this session because the husband is suffering in dread fear of a nuclear holocaust. The organ-player constantly checks his watch so that he can leave, and a child sleeps in the pews and licks a chair when he isn’t unconscious. Tomas’s temple is not healthy.

After the mass, Tomas attempts to counsel the terrified Jonas Persson (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close‘s Max von Sydow) are catastrophic as Tomas is experiencing a massive crisis of faith himself. Since his wife’s death, Tomas has received nothing but silence from God and in a nihilistic conversation with Jonas, he ponders if it was ever there. These are not the comforting words that the emotionally fragile Jonas needed to hear and disaster quickly follows. Tomas also rejects the loving and desperately lonely Marta again and again as she only tries to care for him and despite the obvious fact that he cares for her. Tomas can not hear the voice of God, and in his anger and self-loathing, he takes it out on the most vulnerable around him who need his guidance and care.

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With a handful of conversations in Winter Light, Ingmar Bergman does more to pierce the veil of suffering that religion (and the logical doubt caused by its existence) inflicts on its practitioners than any book or academic piece I’ve ever read. The disastrous counseling session between Tomas and Jonas speaks to the dangers of investing all of one’s hopes in the possibility that religion has answers to our most dramatic life problems. Marta writes Tomas a letter and in a beautifully handled long-take, we get the clearest defense of her atheist position in the face of the pain it causes Tomas. And later on, in a schoolhouse, Tomas is in the midst of horrendous pain for playing a role in a specific tragedy and he lashes out at the innocent Marta with as much as force as he can muster showing the hypocrisy of his faith.

From a technical perspective, this is one of Bergman’s least complex films. The camerawork is stark and unpretentious (not that I don’t love the dizzying visual wizardry of Bergman films like Persona) and that fits with the film’s astoundingly somber tone. The cinematography is straight-forward but never once lets you escape the emotional torment these Swedes find themselves in. Particularly, during the five minute long shot of Marta reading her letter, you are made intimately aware of how much she’s hurting (achieved in no small part through Ingrid Thulin’s emotionally grueling performance).

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And, like all Bergman films, the performances are something to be treasured. Even more than his beleaguered David in Through a Glass Darkly, Gunnar Bjornstrand turns Tomas into a haunted and haunting figure. The movie begins during the lengthy closing of Mass at Tomas’s parish, and from the get go, Bjornstrand makes it clear that Tomas’s heart isn’t in this anymore. And as the very definition of his existence continues to fall more rapidly apart as the film progresses, Bjornstrand radiates the horrific torment destroying this figure whose life has no clear meaning anymore.

And ingrid Thulin’s Marta is one of the most devastating portrayals of female desperation this side of Rachel, Rachel or Women in Love. Although Marta infatuation with Tomas borders on the pathetic (any self-respecting woman would have given up on such a cold and callous man years ago), the aging school marm sees the hopes for her emotional salvation in this wounded man. And Thulin captures the breadth of her dreams, desires, and heartbreak. Max von Sydow isn’t in the film for very long, but his brief reunion with his Through a Glass Darkly co-star was the scene that catapulted this scene towards the masterful realm that it then never left.

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In the film’s closing moments, a nearly catatonic Tomas arrives for his final mass of the day to a church completely empty of anyone other than his atheist admirer, the drunk organ player, and the crippled sexton. As Tomas is preparing his sermon, the sexton speaks with Tomas about Christ’s Passion, i.e. the last hours of his life. And the sexton wonders if perhaps we haven’t overvalued Christ’s physical suffering over his emotional suffering from the betrayal and abandonment of his disciples and God himself when he’s on the cross and God won’t answer his pleas. If you understand what makes that so powerful within the context of this film, do yourself a favor and watch another masterpiece from one of the greatest filmmakers to ever live.

Final Score: A+

 

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Narrative elegance has become something of a lost art. With the notable exception of Kenneth Lonergan, the idea of a simple story, exceptionally told, rarely graces the silver screen.  The idea that you don’t need a high-concept logline but, rather, just exquisitely drawn characters providing a fresh perspective on the human condition. I don’t mean to dismiss complex narratives or metatextual storytelling (my adoration of Synecdoche, New York should speak to that) or films of the Terrence Malick stripe that nearly abandon plot all together. I simply year for easier access to films with a more natural and understated approach to observing life, in all its forms. And 1948’s The Bicycle Thief is an undeniable masterwork of that species of film-making.

Vittorio De Sica was one of the fathers of the Italian Neo-Realist movement, a post-World War II school of filmmaking rooted in a realistic portrayal of lower-class suffering (Fellini’s La Strada is the closest I’ve come to reviewing a Neo-Realist picture on this blog before, but more accurately, that was a transitional film for Fellini to his later, surrealist works). Neo-Realist films often utilized non-professional actors so the movies would look even more authentic, and they intentionally avoided the glitz and glamour of Hollywood-style film-making. And in De Sica’s magnum opus, The Bicycle Thief, the tenets of Neo-Realism are on full, heart-wrenching display as one man’s quest for survival is chronicled in all of its tragic (non)glory.

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In a post-fascism Italy, unemployment is endemic, and Rome, one of the shining jewels of Europe, is awash in crippling poverty. Jobs are given away by lottery, and on one fateful evening, Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggioriani) has his name chosen to place posters around the city (of a Rita Hayworth film which is a particularly clever joke about this film’s non-glamorized nature). Antonio has been unemployed for so long though that he and his long-suffering wife have been forced to pawn most of their possessions including the family bicycle. And, in the first of many ironic twists throughout the film, Antonio’s new job requires him to own a bike.

Of course, Antonio doesn’t have enough money to get the bike out of the pawn shop and he and his wife are forced to pawn their sheets, which were part of the wife’s dowry on their wedding. And, in another brilliant visual in the film, we see a mountain of sheets that other families in the Riccis same position have had to sell. And so, Antonio finally has his bike and for the first time in ages, he can provide for his family. But, the cruelty of an indifferent world has other plans in mind when Antonio’s bike is stolen at the beginning of his very first day of work, and so he and his young son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) are forced to go on a day-long mission to find the bike because if they can’t, they won’t have enough money to even eat.

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And, in what I hope isn’t too massive a spoiler considering the brutal nature of the film, they don’t get the bike back but that’s far from the most upsetting element of the film’s denouement. From a plot perspective, that’s all The Bicycle Thief is. It’s a story about a father and son’s failed quest to retrieve a stolen bicycle. But beneath that simple surface is a series of complex statements on the relationship between father and sons, the quiet desperation of the working poor, and the lengths we will go to provide for those we care for. What is Glengarry Glen Ross but The Bicycle Thief with a new coat of Reagan-era, “Me”-Generation  paint?

The Bicycle Thief joins Rachel, Rachel and A Single Man as being one of the most overwhelmingly sad films that I’ve watched for this blog. From beginning to end, the sheer weight of retrieving a stolen bicycle feels like the matter of life and death that it has become. And Vittorio De Sica shoots the film with such honest detail and confident assurance in the audience’s ability to understand the plight of the Ricci family that The Bicycle Thief never has to resort to ham-fisted melodramatics to get its point across. It simply presents this family’s life as it is and it lets the audience come to the natural conclusions.

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The Bicycle Thief has been accused of being political propaganda (particularly that it was some type of Marxist allegory), and though I can understand that interpretation, my response is “So what if it is?” and that the film has so much more going than that. Clearly, Vittorio De Sica is overwhelmed by the poverty and desperation that was destroying his country. And, by taking one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Rome, and reducing it to its poorest elements (only once contrasting it with an upper-crust bourgeois life during the restaurant sequence), De Sica shows the reality of the 99%. But, the film takes pains to not mythologize or romanticize poverty which leads to the film’s most famous sequence, which has now become one of the most powerful film scenes I’ve ever watched.

As I said earlier, Antonio doesn’t get his bike back, but that’s now where his humiliation and degradation ends, and it’s part of what makes the film so powerful. If The BIcycle Thief were made today, Antonio would get his bike back or some kind stranger would help him find a way out of his situation even without the bike. Here, Antonio is pushed so far past the brink of despair that in a moment of weakness, he tries to steal another man’s bike, making the circle of poverty and desperation complete. And, as he’s chased by an angry mob and Bruno watches his father with shameful tears in his eyes, you realize that whoever took Antonio’s bike was likely pushed there by the same cruelties that led Antonio to the same situation.

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And though the film is stripped of a lot of cinematic artifice, it’s black and white photography is still gorgeous though the most impressive technical aspect of the film was editing. The print on Netflix Instant is a fairly miserable transfer job, but there were moments of montage and transposition that were at an Eisenstein-level of brilliance. In fact, I imagine that during the lead-up to Antonio’s failed attempt to steal the bike, De Sica was heavily influenced by the “Odessa Steps” sequence from The Battleship Potemkin. The interplay between the world, not of wealth but merely getting by, against Antonio’s existentialist battle to survive does more to cement what drives him to steal another man’s bike than any amount of exposition ever could.

Lamberto Maggiorani was a non-professional performer as Antonio but his performance was better for its almost total lack of theatricality. A great director can get star performances from the most unlikely sources, and Vittorio De Sica hit a home run with Lamberto Maggiorani as Antonio. Not simply because he looks like the type of man who would be in Antonio’s position, Maggiorani hits the right notes of frustration, desperation, and wounded desire at every corner. Antonio is a man constantly bullied by the cruel whims of fate, and Maggiorani always makes you feel his heartbreak. Enzo Staiola is also excellent as Bruno’s young son particularly when his visions of his father are forever shattered by Antonio’s decision to steal the bicycle.

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But, above all, what makes The Bicycle Thief such a masterpiece is its complete refusal to talk down to its audience or gild the linings of the movie whatsoever. Even before Antonio decides to steal another man’s back, he is pushed to the edge time and time again. He follows an impoverished old man into a church and harasses him during mass on the off-chance the man will help him get his bike back. At one point, he thinks his son has drowned in a river but when it turns out to be another boy that has suffered, he can’t even suppress his smile that at least it’s someone else suffering. If there’s a political statement in The Bicycle Thief, it’s that society can not be surprised if we begin to sociopathically care only for our own needs and desires if there is absolutely no safety net waiting to ensure that we survive.

I had never seen The Bicycle Thief before yesterday, and even after one viewing, it has already leaped its way into being one of the top ten films I’ve ever seen. Occasionally, the films that I idolize for this blog are particularly cerebral and are only appreciable by a niche crowd (The Tree of Life or Through a Glass Darkly). The Bicycle Thief is simple yet so elegant that I can’t imagine anyone not finding something to love in this marvelous picture. For film-lovers, it is the definition of required viewing.

Final Score: A+

 

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(A quick aside before I begin this review. I am, to put it lightly, hungover and am worried this review will be garbage because of it. This film is an undeniable masterpiece so I hope I can persevere and make my review do it justice.)

If you were to ask literary snobs if movies could tackle the same grand themes of the best books, their answer would likely be a derisive laugh and a short, “No… just no.” And, 99% of the time, they’d be right. Movies are my preferred art form, but there’s no denying that outside of the absolute best works, their themes can be shallow, repetitive, and not terribly original. But, if there’s one film maker who deserves to stand among the most philosophical storytellers not just of the big screen but of all time, it’s the Swedish master, Ingmar Bergman. Not content to examine the rote, well-trod aspects of human existence, Bergman digs to the core of our existential experience. Questioning not the act of love but love itself, examining not a particular religion but the presence (or lack thereof) of God in our lives, focusing not on the death of one but on the role mortality plays in all our lives, every Bergman film is a mental exercise in critical analysis of our place in the universe. 1961’s Through a Glass Darkly does not disappoint.

Alongside Winter Light and The Silence, the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winner Through a Glass Darkly constitutes the first entry in Bergman’s “trilogy of faith.” An unofficial trilogy (in so far as Bergman didn’t realize they made a thematic triptych until after he had made them), the movies (from what I understand because I’ve only seen Through a Glass Darkly so far) constitute a meditation on religious faith and whether humans can feel the presence of God if he exists while also asking a serious question about whether he exists in the first place. And Through a Glass Darkly takes a deeply dysfunctional family as a starting point for the exploration of the idea that we use religious attachment and God’s love as a way to make up for a lack of emotional intimacy and personal affection in our own lives as well as a haunting thesis on the way that we create dark mirrors of ourselves in the people we keep around us.

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Described as a “chamber film” (both for its limited locations and characters as well as its use of chamber music in the score), Through a Glass Darkly takes place over the course of twenty four hours on a secluded Swedish island as one bourgeois family is forced to confront its neuroses, dysfunction, and hidden secrets. Karin (Harriett Andersson) has just been released from a mental hospital after a continued battle with schizophrenia. Her husband Martin (The Exorcist‘s Max von Sydow), a compassionate but frustrated doctor is bringing Karin back to her family home where her playwright seventeen year old brother, Minus (Lars Passgard) lives mostly by himself except on those rare occasions when their father David (Gunnar Bjornstrand), a struggling novelist, is home. Thinking that the love and support of her family may be enough to limit the severity of Karin’s schizophrenia, no one expects that the divisions tearing this family apart will have the opposite effect.

Because in this particular Swedish family, the only remotely well-adjusted member is David who is himself suffering from deep sexual frustration and the knowledge that he is slowly but surely losing grasp on his wife. Both Karin and Minus resent their father who is never around, and Minus presents an elaborate play (that he wrote himself and performed in) that is both a welcome home present to his father as well as a not particularly subtle jab at his father’s failure as a writer and a parent. Minus too suffers from deep sexual frustration, what with being seventeen and living on a secluded island by himself with his crazy sister for occasional company. And when his sister finds him reading a Playboy-esque magazine, she teases him nearly to the point of flirtation. And David of course feels guilty about his shortcomings as a father as well as his morbid interest in his daughter’s mental illness considering that his wife ultimately succumbed to the same problem. And, all the while, Karin’s symptoms (which had been in remission) are coming back with a vengeance.

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As you can probably tell from that plot description, Through a Glass Darkly is as bleak (if not more so) than his later Persona. Wrestling with mental illness in a disturbingly realistic and un-Hollywood manner, Through a Glass Darkly is a portrait of a family circling the edge of oblivion and it would be a Bergman film if we weren’t brought past the brink by the film’s end. Dealing with incest, frigidity, sexual guilt, our inability to have a meaningful relationship with God (either because he doesn’t exist or because we can’t touch him), and the particular breed of narcissism at the heart of many artists. Bergman has a deserved reputation as an artist fixated on the concept of human suffering, but through an examination of individuals suffering hellish existentialist crises, Bergman offers up a cinematic opportunity to examine the paths that lead us to suffering and a call to avoid falling into these traps.

Much like Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in Persona, Through a Glass Darkly is heavily defined by an electric performance from its female lead. That Harriet Andersson was not nominated for a Best Actress Oscar at the 1961 Academy Awards seems like a crime (though with a Sophia Loren win for Two Women and plenty of other great nominees, it was a fairly strong year). Sensual and supremely vulnerable, Andersson’s performance was as emotionally naked as the part required, and like Laura Dern in Inland Empire or Natalie Portman in Black Swan, Andersson’s portrayal of a woman past the verge of insanity is just stellar, and alongside Catherine Denueve in Polanski’s Repulsion, it marks an interesting comment on feminine sexual repression. I would be hard-pressed to name another writer-directed that consistently wrote as many excellent parts for female actresses as Ingmar Bergman did.

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And the men are just as good. It’s interesting just how much tension and conflict Bergman can create with such small casts whether it’s the two principals of Persona or the only four people we see whatsoever in Through a Glass Darkly. Special mention must go to Gunnar Bjornstrand’s David who is the most morally bankrupt person in the family but it is clear that out of the men, he may be the one that suffers nearly as much as Karin. He not only watched his wife succumb to madness but now he sees his daughter doing the same thing and he wrestles with guilt to his natural reaction to her pain. Lars Passgard’s portrayal of a young man struggling with guilt about his own sexual urges should be terriffically painful for any man who ever went through puberty and fought religious sexual guilt. And, as one of the greatest Swedish film actors of all time, Max Von Sydow’s Martin is a sufficiently pained and sympathetic creation.

Alright, I wrote half of this review yesterday in the throes of a killer hangover and I wrote the rest of it today after my brain was drained by a particularly strenuous exam. So, it’s probably time to draw this to a close. Let me end then by saying that Ingmar Bergman is one of the most rare types of filmmakers. Like Terrence Malick or Kenneth Lonergan, his films’ goals aren’t to entertain. They mean to edify. So, is sitting down for the perfectly trimmed 96 minutes of Through a Glass Darkly the right move if you’re looking for a good time or an entertaining experience? Hell no. It’s miserable in the absolute best sort of way (though not quite as painful as Amour). But, you will leave the film knowing that you just witnessed an important piece of art that had something real to say and, honestly, that is the ideal of any art form. And Bergman was one of the truest masters of his.

Final Score: A+