Monthly Archives: February 2014

Living in Film (2011-13)

A continuation from last time. For 2008-10, as well as the rationale behind these film lists, kindly click this link.

2011

The Elephant Man (1980)

1. The Elephant Man (dir. David Lynch, 1980)
2. The Blood on Satan’s Claw (dir. Piers Haggard, 1971)
3. Suddenly, Last Summer (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1959)
4. Scarface (dir. Howard Hawks, Richard Rosson, 1932)
5. The King’s Speech (dir. Tom Hooper, 2010)
6. The Leopard Man (dir. Jacques Tourneur, 1943)
7. Shakespeare in Love (dir. John Madden, 1998)
8. Now, Voyager (dir. Irving Rapper, 1942)
9. Stranger on the Third Floor (dir. Boris Ingster, 1942)
10. The Dresser (dir. Peter Yates, 1983)

Four entries on this list exemplify a running theme: legitimate cinema fighting horror. Stranger on the Third Floor is a realistic (if noirish) drama, yet with a courtroom dream sequence worthy of The Bells; similarly, Scarface places Boris Karloff, fantastical horror personified, in the middle of Chicago mob-land. Suddenly, Last Summer boasts the legitimising presence of Joseph L. Mankiewicz, thus glossing over its Bacchic stew of depraved sexualities and orgiastic cannibalism. (It’s worth noting that playwright Tennessee Williams has since acquired a patina of respectability – one that certainly didn’t exist in censor-happy 1959.) The Elephant Man consolidates these clashes of style, veering between weepy sentimentality and dark carnival histrionics that outdo Tod Browning. This schizophrenia resounds in the gulf between John Gielgud’s saintly Carr Gomm and Freddie Jones’ dyspeptic Bytes. It’s a character coupling worthy of Dickens: they seem not to belong in the same universe. I find it satisfying to see these semi-horrors alongside unabashed (and relatively obscure) horrors. I will stand up any day and defend The Blood on Satan’s Claw, in all its supernatural, folky absurdity, over the better known Witchfinder General (1968; rarely has Vincent Price appeared more ill at ease). Likewise, The Leopard Man is a good deal better than some of the more critically lauded Lewton pictures, particularly The Seventh Victim (1943; so obtuse it ceases to engage).

There’s a high concentration of British films on this list, including two Geoffrey Rush starrers: Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech (a dull choice, I know; I’ll chalk it up to the delight of the cinema experience). Rush is Australian (nothing wrong with that), but the other Brit flicks are made for me by their homegrown theatrical talents: The Dresser has Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney, both playing wonderfully dangerously; Shakespeare in Love is worthwhile for the chance to see theatrical Geminis Simon Callow and Antony Sher in the same film. My old favourite Bette Davis has sunk below the water-line on other lists, so it’s particularly satisfying to see Now, Voyager here. These previous films were also fighting in more competitive years: for example, Davis’s Dark Victory (1939), Old Acquaintance (1943) and Mr. Skeffington (1944) all made it into the top twenty – but not the top ten – for 2009. (The pattern struck with a vengeance in 2013, with The Old Maid (1939), The Letter (1940), In This Our Life (1942) and Deception (1946) all making the top twenty.) Historically, America’s greatest actors have been women rather than men; another of these sacred monsters, Gladys Cooper, makes a fine villainess in Now, Voyager.

2012

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

1. The Lady Vanishes (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1938)
2. Les Triplettes de Belleville (dir. Sylvain Chomet, 2003)
3. Three Cases of Murder (dir. David Eady, George More O’Ferrall, Wendy Toye, Orson Welles, 1955)
4. House of Whipcord (dir. Pete Waler, 1974)
5. The Uninvited (dir. Lewis Allen, 1944)
6. Hamlet (dir. Laurence Olivier, 1948)
7. Fanatic (dir. Silvio Narizzano, 1965)
8. The Clairvoyant (dir. Maurice Elvey, 1935)
9. Death Line (dir. Gary Sherman, 1973)
10. They Knew What They Wanted (dir. Garson Kanin, 1940)

2012 seems to be a year that gestures to other films I like – and sometimes much better than the ones on the list! The Lady Vanishes ensures that a Hitchcock has at last come out top, though I’m not sure I admire it as much as some that featured lower down in previous years (The 39 Steps and Vertigo in particular). Three Cases of Murder stands for the portmanteau film, a British horror institution that runs from 1945’s Dead of Night (featuring Charters and Caldicott of The Lady Vanishes!) to Amicus, whose best efforts are probably Tales from the Crypt (1972) and From Beyond the Grave (1974). Fanatic represents the psycho woman subgenre: triumphantly started by Bette Davis’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and thereafter propped up by a series of fading dames (in this case, Tallulah Bankhead, pleasingly unsettling). And The Uninvited and Hamlet stand for the ghost film. The Uninvited is compelling and at times poetic but lacks the cast-iron conviction of The Innocents (1961; a film I seem to be watching almost every month lately); even its (very good) apparitions can’t compete with the unexpected scariness of the Ghost in Olivier’s Hamlet (a film worthy but somewhat dull in other respects – Peter Cushing’s peacock Osric excepted). The titles above are a superb illustration of how diversely cinema attacks the Gothic. Horizons stretch further than monochrome monster movies.

2012 also contains a number of films that are made gripping by their actors. Claude Rains raises The Clairvoyant to the status of forgotten classic, whilst Charles Laughton makes his improbable casting (a rotund, almost offensively Italian grape farmer) in They Knew What They Wanted almost cosmically heart-breaking. I’m still at a loss to explain how Laughton does it. Lesser lights also shine brightly: Sheila Keith (chillingly androgynous) startlingly prefigures Roald Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull in House of Whipcord; Donald Pleasence brightens the sewer-rat aesthetics of Death Line with an off-kilter slew of very British tea-rejections. It’s appropriate that these acting highlights are rounded off by Les Triplettes de Belleville – an animation inventive, attenuated and bottomlessly grotesque. The grotesque is that primordial ooze from which my own acting gremlins hobble (go on, have a click), and animation one of the arts that started me on the journey (that one too).

2013

It's a Wonderful Life (1947)

1. It’s a Wonderful Life (dir. Frank Capra, 1946)
2. This Land Is Mine (dir. Jean Renoir, 1943)
3. Portrait of Jennie (dir. William Dieterle, 1947)
4. Up (dir. Pete Docter, Bob Peterson, 2009)
5. Cash on Demand (dir. Quentin Lawrence, 1962)
6. Never Take Sweets from a Stranger (dir. Cyril Frankel, 1960)
7. Gladiator (dir. Ridley Scott, 2000)
8. All This, and Heaven Too (dir. Anatole Litvak, 1940)
9. Witness for the Prosecution (dir. Billy Wilder, 1957)
10. The Penalty (dir. Wallace Worsley, 1920)

This list reminds me how much the forties appeal to me for film. What was it about the ambience of that decade? Scrutinising the four entries here, it strikes me as a time when Hollywood turned to making hopeful stories, human interest stories; love stories, I suppose – and yet always interestingly overshadowed. By World War most obviously, the First of which figures in It’s a Wonderful Life, the Second in the almost unbearably moving This Land Is Mine. Although the spirit of War creeps into subjects where it’s not explicitly mentioned: I’ve heard The Wolf Man (1941) discussed in this light (come to think of it, I argued the case in my Tragedy paper at Cambridge); it certainly holds for the more fragile and melancholy Portrait of Jennie. There’s a more sensual punch too: the studio system in full, seductive swing. The glossiness of this era’s black and white film stock is something I increasingly relish. It’s also to do with the orchestral music, the impossibly deep sets and the star power: three elements which make All This, and Heaven Too so beguiling (partly because so little known), a near-perfect melding of Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940). I wrote on Portrait of Jennie in this earlier blog post. It might be my favourite of director William Dieterle’s unofficial Gothic trinity, the previous entries in which are also exquisite: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939) and All That Money Can Buy (1940). I also wrote on The Penalty in that entry, so I won’t bother harping on about it here. But it is fantastically good.

Also on the list are two low-key thrillers from Hammer Films, whose outer limits I’m delving into more and more. Cash on Demand is a remarkably tense update of A Christmas Carol (and a cynical British antidote to the forgivable schmaltz of It’s a Wonderful Life), with Peter Cushing and Andre Morrell delivering razor-sharp, Pinter-style performances (I want to see them in No Man’s Land now). Never Take Sweets from a Stranger is a horrifying drama (but not really a horror) centred on paedophilia; Hammer’s version of M, perhaps. It boasts a transformed Felix Aylmer, worlds away from the doddering old man schtick that enlivened Olivier’s Hamlet and Kenneth Williams’ repertoire of talk-show impressions. Witness for the Prosecution adds a third black and white British-made thriller to the list: like This Land Is Mine, it’s made by Charles Laughton. There are also two relatively modern films on the list. Up was another blessed reminder that I really love animation. All the same, I think Pixar’s grown into itself: I remember finding Toy Story (1995) visually ugly and astoundingly charmless as a child. Gladiator was just plain good. If modern film serves a purpose for me, it’s fitting that it’s in giving utter believability to the past.

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Living in Film (2008-10)

Last week, I saw Citizen Kane for the first time. Predictably, I loved it. But this milestone did get me to thinking: Why did I love it? And why was that predictable?

Film-watching, like book-reading, is one of the supreme joys of my life. Like any great love affair, it works the miracle of taking me out of myself. And yet it makes me more fully myself than I’m likely to understand. Over my (not quite) twenty-three years, I’ve spent countless hours taking in many hundreds of films. ‘Taking in’ is one of those pleasingly old-timey picture-going expressions. But in this context, it makes a lot of sense. Film after film has slipped its spool and entered my brain via four discreet head-holes: two at the sides, two out front. What all that light and sound and noise and bustle has been doing in there since is a bit of a mystery. Certainly, I have an eerily good memory for the minutiae of film. There are particular films that I can hum, almost from start to finish. Memory, lightly exercised, brings up title cards, stock footage, musical cues, and (most sinister to me) the vocal inflections of actors – many of them long since dead, yet alive in my brain as ghosts. Perhaps these ghosts have shaped me somewhat.

Then again, the process might be less romantic: that I’ve just shaped which films have gotten to me. This year, the BAFTAs have rolled by and, as usual, I’ve seen only one or two of the nominated films. Simply put, they didn’t interest me that much. This isn’t some pose designed to impress – because, Lord knows, I’m a merciless populist in my film-watching habits. It’s more than I’m an antiquarian by nature. There are only two films in the ether that I’m hoping to see: Saving Mr Banks and The Invisible Woman. Despite being newly made, both are history in motion, a kind of living cultural criticism: biopics covering Disney and Dickens both. Even when I engage with the present, it seems to take me further into the past.

I do at times feel like an archivist of my own life: a shuffling, bespectacled librarian, armed with filing cabinets stuffed with useless papers. I’m a compulsive list-maker. I’ve kept lists of every film I’ve watched since the mid-2000s, chronologically ordered by month. This is a very particular obsession. It’s not as though I’ve ever attempted this with books or plays. I suppose it’s the collector’s instinct: the idea of films as tangible commodities; artefacts to be studied and analysed. This can surface reductively: star ratings seem to have begun with film criticism, and they’re a canker that keeps on spreading. And yet, despite Dogberry’s advice to the contrary (‘comparisons are odious’), there’s much to be learned from asking yourself why you value one film over another. To that end, I marshalled these films into the orders in which I enjoyed them.

Looking over the three lists below (spanning 2008 to 2010), I discern a series of patterns that confirm where my interests lie. A few of them take me back to Citizen Kane. It’s often to do with the words: A Man for All Seasons, adapted from Robert Bolt’s most literate of stage plays, tops one list; All About Eve – written, like Kane, by screenwriting genius Herman J. Mankiewicz – tops another. In contrast, many of my favourites are determined by a stunning visual aesthetic, thus the high-ranking presence of silent films (and the all but silent M, which tops the third list). I like films that make me feel some strong emotion – many, I suppose, are modern melodramas (women’s pictures, as they were once derisively termed). Whether they make me want to weep or cheer is besides the point: some confirmation that I’m not utterly hardened is always welcome. I also like a film that shocks me – although that hardening means it takes a lot to really shock me.

Then there are the dark and sheltered and moody films. I refer, of course, to the Gothics (a tradition I’ve elsewhere toyed with calling ‘Fantasy Noir’). Citizen Kane is a Gothic in certain lights. Xanadu dissolves neatly into Dracula’s castle; the presence of Gregg Toland, master cinematographer on Peter Lorre’s Mad Love, completes the transformation. (It’s worth pointing out that Welles’ Macbeth was purposefully shot in the style of Bride of Frankenstein.) Almost inevitably, Gothic cinema trickles into the more formulaic niche of genre cinema. This came back to me early on in Kane, in the scene with his mother. Instead of thinking ‘Why, what a fine performance from Agnes Moorehead’ (and it is) my first instinct was to think ‘Why, it’s the campy mystery writer from The Bat with Vincent Price! Perhaps she’ll harp on about the cat dropping its dentures!’

Above all (and believe me, this is as close to a summation as we will ever likely get), I go for cinema that fuses art and populism. After all, there should be no distinction. Yes, Citizen Kane can be seen as art – but it’s so often quoted in The Simpsons that there’s another side to the coin. High Art and Cornball Americana go hand in hand: the Charlie Kane song (‘There is a man, / A certain man…’) was introduced to me as a song about Mr Burns (‘To friends he’s known as Monty, / But to you it’s Mr Burns!’). Along the same lines, I was impressed to hear Christopher Frayling say the following (in a jolly good edition of Desert Island Discs). It’s tricky to transcribe the bubblings of free-form conversation, but these thoughts largely correspond with my views on film:

I think there’s a cultural snobbery. Everyone erects hierarchies, particularly in this country – that we’re interested in literary rather than visual things … My view is there’s good movies and there’s bad movies, just like there’s good poetry and bad poetry … Culture is a very, very broad church, and nothing’s to be gained from erecting artificial hierarchies … I think you can do a PhD about anything: it’s a matter of approach, seriousness, vocabulary, concept … There’s nothing intrinsically trivial about any subject matter.

My hierarchies only have meaning where I’m concerned – beyond me, they’re curios only. I’m reminded also of a saying from film historian Bill Warren: ‘You can only see a film for the first time once.’ I look back on these lists and envy myself for getting to see these wonderful films for the first time. But the journey continues, and I keep being surprised at what gold turns up.

Let’s dig into the lists then! I’ll provide a bit of commentary, but also try to quell my logorrhea to let them speak for themselves.

2008

M (1931)

1. M (dir. Fritz Lang, 1931)
2. Metropolis (dir. Fritz Lang, 1927)
3. The Grapes of Wrath (dir. John Ford, 1940)
4. Haxan (dir. Benjamin Christensen, 1922)
5. Sunset Blvd. (dir. Billy Wilder, 1955)
6. The Birds (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)
7. Rear Window (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)
8. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (dir. Tim Burton, 2008)
9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (dir. Don Siegel, 1956)
10. Bonnie and Clyde (dir. Arthur Penn, 1967)

M kicks off a distinctive trend of ‘on the run’ movies: narratives that follow social outcasts in their struggle to escape some life-suppressing, anti-human force. Cue sweeping landscape shots, suspenseful chase scenes and plucky heroism against the odds (and often against pre-existing moral imperatives). Although Peter Lorre is the nominal villain of M (paedophile serial killers generally are), the film’s final sequence displaces all terror onto the mob. Following suit, Bonnie and Clyde pits charismatic criminals against largely faceless lawmen; Invasion of the Body Snatchers takes facelessness to the next level. Of the two Hitchcocks, The Birds also fits the pattern, but Rear Window cleverly inverts it: the criminal is divorced from the viewer’s vantage point, which remains anchored throughout.

The Grapes of Wrath is another ‘on the run’ tale. I was then in the midst of my Steinbeck phase, going through the major novels as well as the minor fiction. I’m guessing this was tangential preparation for the interview at Cambridge – nonsensical, really, given that American literature wasn’t much on the agenda. More purely, I’ll have watched it for John Carradine, who I knew and liked from Bluebeard (less so from his under-cooked Dracula). I’m surprised at how much I enjoyed Sweeney Todd. When I was writing my dissertation on the Demon Barber, I couldn’t stand more than half an hour of the desaturated, cheerless film. I suppose it came down to the simple pleasure of seeing and liking something at the cinema with everybody else; being able to enter the happy throng for a change and say ‘me too!’ (I’ve since seen Metropolis in the cinema, and that was an outstanding event.) The two other Gothics on the list – Haxan and Sunset Blvd. – are more unexpected, durable, exciting.

2009

All About Eve (1950)

1. All About Eve (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950)
2. North by Northwest (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1959)
3. Vertigo (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1958)
4. The 39 Steps (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1935)
5. Les Yeux Sans Visage (dir. Georges Franju, 1960)
6. Scum (dir. Alan Clarke, 1979)
7. The Wicker Man (dir. Robin Hardy, 1973)
8. Amadeus (dir. Milos Forman, 1984)
9. Les Miserables (dir. Richard Boleslawski, 1935)
10. All That Money Can Buy (dir. William Dieterle, 1940)

The films of 2009 are often tied to academic milestones. I was watching Les Yeux Sans Visage when I received the phone call telling me I’d got into Cambridge; equally, I remember watching Amadeus when I was smarting at home after my first term there. And The Wicker Man was seen on one of those joyous, sun-spoiled May afternoons when you knew you’d done all your work (less of that nowadays). Scum is a harrowing refugee from the classroom of A-level Film Studies – allegedly the kind of course that should have disqualified me from a decent university. How appropriate then that the film is an indictment of the British education system. I later discovered I was the highest achieving Film Studies pupil in the country, which should have been a vindication, but I think only confirmed the limitations of the exam system (words like ‘non-diegetic’ still bring the bile to the back of my throat).

Looking back, I’d probably raise All That Money Can Buy a little higher (its Dickensian tale of soul-selling rewards repeat viewings; was instrumental, indeed, in redeveloping Scrooge & Marley) – and certainly drop North by Northwest beneath Vertigo and The 39 Steps. I probably rated North by Northwest so highly as another of these ‘on the run’ adventures I go so dotty about – but I think now that The 39 Steps does this much better. (Les Miserables is another such tale – and one I need to rewatch, now I’m obsessed with Charles Laughton.) All About Eve is untouchable; the perfect film – and as happy a combination of art and populism as I can well imagine.

2010

A Man for All Seasons (1966)

1. A Man for All Seasons (dir. Fred Zinnemann, 1966)
2. Laura (dir. Otto Preminger, 1944)
3. Saboteur (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1942)
4. Touch of Evil (dir. Orson Welles, 1958)
5. The Queen of Spades (dir. Thorold Dickinson, 1949)
6. The Trials of Oscar Wilde (dir. Ken Hughes, 1960)
7. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947)
8. The Woman in the Window (dir. Fritz Lang, 1944)
9. The Fly (dir. David Cronenberg, 1986)
10. Rope (dir. Alfred Hitchcock, 1948)

A Man for All Seasons is a film that I was genetically hard-wired to adore – my grandma’s all-time favourite. Seeing the stage play at York Theatre Royal in 2008 (starring my all-time hero of everything ever, the great David Leonard) was a formative experience. It’s just as well I got round to the film. It represents almost everything I can’t do in theatre (as exemplified by the godly Paul Scofield), but, perhaps for that reason, I love it very dearly. The Trials of Oscar Wilde I find a good deal better than Stephen Fry’s Wilde (which I did like a fair bit). There’s a profound charge from having an Oscar as unrelentingly butch as Peter Finch. Lionel Jeffries’ Marquess of Queensberry is about the most thoroughly hateful villain in any film I can recall – like Freddie Jones, he comes just the right side of over-the-top. And the date of the film, 1960, guarantees a reticence that makes the danger quite electrifying.

Wilde has long stirred mixed emotions in me: this also goes for The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (a woman’s picture if ever there was one) and The Fly (Beauty and the Beast shot through with razor blades). Saboteur did surprisingly well for a second-tier Hitchcock (an ‘on the run’ plot again – which I believe goes for The Woman in the Window too), beating off critical favourite Rope (although a lot of minor Hitches came lower down on the 2010 list: Stage Fright, I Confess, The Wrong Man, the execrable Family Plot). However, I have a profound buried crush on Robert Cummings – one that’s only just come back to me – so that may well account for it. Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil troubles me somewhat. I clearly liked it, but, at the same time, I can remember almost nothing about it. 2010 was a busy year, though, and I find much the same applying to Laura and The Queen of Spades by this point (I remember their outstanding gay aesthetes, Clifton Webb and Anton Walbrook, but precious little else). I hope this won’t happen with Citizen Kane.

A follow-up entry, covering 2011 to 2013, will no doubt follow soon. Lucky, lucky you.

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