Title: Once Upon a Time in America
Release Date: May 23, 1984
Director: Sergio Leone
Production Company: The Ladd Company | PSO International | Embassy International Pictures | Rafran Cinematografica
Sometimes it seems that all you have to do to make it on a Great Films list is to make a movie about gangsters and make it very long. That is the formula that legendary Italian director Sergio Leone followed in making Once Upon a Time in America, which ended up being his final film, and one he spent over a decade creating. It’s also the final part of a loose trilogy of Once Upon a Time… movies that began with Once Upon a Time in the West. Notoriously, the production company severely cut down the movie for its American release and rearranged the scenes in chronological order. This movie bombed in the U.S. but the nearly 4-hour “European Cut” that I watched is considered a classic.
The movie is told from the point of view of David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert DeNiro, played by Scott Tiler as a teenager) who forms a gang in the Jewish enclave of Manhattan’s Lower East Side with his friend Max (James Woods, Rusty Jacobs as a teenager) and three other friends. The story is framed by an older Noodles returning to New York City after 35 years because someone has learned he betrayed his friends in 1933. The bulk of the film takes place in flashback during the Prohibition Era of the 1910s to 1930s.
Noodles is the epitome of unsympathetic narrator as we see him not only carry out violent crimes, but brutally rape two different women including the one who is supposed to be his lifelong sweetheart, Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern, Jennifer Connelly as a teenager). Women in this film are seemingly just there to be humiliated, beaten, and raped. This is no doubt and accurate depiction of how gangsters treated women and girls, but if it’s up to you if that’s something you want to watch in a movie.
I’m not sure why Leone chose to cast actors of Italian/Irish and Irish ancestry in the lead roles as Jewish gangsters. Not only was it unfair to ethnically Jewish actors who could’ve played the parts but it’s confusing since DeNiro and Woods had already played gangsters of other ethnicities. I found Jacobs was a lot more charismatic as the Young Max than Woods, who is just his usually creepy-ass self. The plot hinges on the audience’s’ belief in Noodles and Max having a deep friendship but I never feel any such connection between DeNiro and Woods. Indeed, the film seems to deliberately repel any emotional connection one might make with the characters. There are huge plot twists that end up being corny and unconvincing, and at the end I was left wondering why we spent nearly four hours on this story.
The one thing Once Upon a Time in America has going for it is that it looks really good. The sets are picture-perfect recreation of the Lower East Side in the early 20th century. I’d love to learn how it was produced and how they got Manhattan Bridge to hover over so many of the street scenes in the era before CGI. Otherwise, gangster movies aren’t really my cup of tea, so your impression of this film may vary, but I found this movie to “meh” overall.
Title: La Grande Illusion
Release Date: June 8, 1937
Director: Jean Renoir
Production Company: Réalisations d’Art Cinématographique (RAC)
I doubt Grand Illusion was the first film about prisoners of war but it seems to have been a great influence on later films like Stalag 17, Bridge Over River Kwai, and The Great Escape. Thematically, though, I found the greatest similarities are with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Both films deal with the the slow dissolution of the European aristocracy in the early 20th century and the bonds of the military elite even across enemy lines. I had no expectations going into this movie, but came away very impressed by Renoir’s camera movement and storytelling as well as the strong acting performances.
Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) is a working class French officer in World War I and Captain de Boëldieu (Pierre Fresnay) is an aristocratic flying ace who is his superior. They are shot down early in the film and held as prisoners of war by the Germans. In camp, they befriend Lieutenant Rosenthal (Marcel Dalio), who is from a nouveau riche Jewish banking family, and is generous in sharing the food sent to him so that the prisoners eat better than the guards. The three men attempt many escapes and eventually taken to Wintersborn, a German fortress with high walls that seems impossible to escape. The camp commander is Major von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), an aristocratic flying ace who actually shot down Maréchal and Boëldieu but after injuries is reassigned to prison camp duties. Rauffenstein and Boëldieu form something of a friendship based on their shared nobility, although the latter is more aware of where the winds are blowing for the aristocracy.
The final act of the film depicts Maréchal and Rosenthal receiving aid from a widowed German farmer, Elsa (Dita Parlo). Here the unity by class over nationality is replicated among the working people. This film was made on the eve of World War II and Renoir’s message of unity and commonality amongst the peoples of Europe was an optimistic vision that didn’t come to pass. By depicting German characters in a positive light, he also seemed to be sending a message to a nation under the grip of Nazism to embrace their better selves. Finally, Grand Illusion is an anti-war message at a time when one was really needed that exposed war’s promise of glory and honor as illusory.
Title: Monsieur Verdoux
Release Date: April 11, 1947
Director: Charles Chaplin
Production Company: United Artists
Charlie Chaplin must’ve seemed like he was around forever by 1947. He debuted on film in 1914 and swiftly rose to fame so much that he could co-create a film studio, United Artists, and have control over making his own pictures. Throughout the 1920s he released innovative feature-length comedies. After the advent of “talkies” Chaplin released his mostly dialogue-free masterpieces City Lights and Modern Times in the 1930s. His first true talkie, The Great Dictator (1940), satirized fascism and more clearly enunciated Chaplin’s own political views. By 1947, changing tastes and rumors of Chaplin’s Communist sympathies made him passe in the USA. He’d been appearing in films since 1914 and again those 34 years must’ve felt like forever (although present day stars like Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks have been active for much longer, so maybe not).
Monsieur Verdoux was not a hit in the US but found an audience in Europe and of course Cahiers du Cinéma put it on their greatest films of all time list. The movie is set in France during the Great Depression era and Chaplin plays the titular character who also operates under of a number of aliases. Verdoux is a con artist who marries several women and then murders them for their money. Chaplin tries to make the character sympathetic by having him be a bank teller laid off because of the Depression who needs to make money to support his disabled wife and child. But Verdoux is an evil person and no amount of wily roguesnish makes him palatable to me. When Verdoux is caught at the end and justifies his murders by contrasting them with the violence of governments at war, it feels more self-serving than a righteous critique of society.
The cast of this film is huge and doesn’t include any big stars although Martha Raye (later of Polident ads) and William Frawley (later of I Love Lucy) both appear. A lot of the performances feels wooden and amateurish. I did like Marilyn Nash’s performance as The Girl, a houseless woman that Verdoux plans to test a poison on until he learns that her story is similar to his own. Nash’s character the conscience of this film and the scenes between her and Chaplin are when the movie works best. The rest of the movie seems to be telling several overlapping stories with differences in tone that never really gels for me. I found it only moderately funny and the underlying cynicism rubbed me the wrong way.
Title: The Band Wagon
Release Date: August 7, 1953
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) is a movie star of song & dance films who was big “about 12-15 years ago” but whose career is fading. In other words, pretty much Fred Astaire at the time this movie was made. He returns to New York where his friends Lily (Nanette Fabray) and Lester (Oscar Levant) have written a Broadway musical they want Tony to star in. They’ve enlisted a very serious producer/director/actor Jeffrey Cordova (Jack Buchanan) to direct the musical despite Tony’s misgivings. Cordova re-envisions the musical as a modern-day retelling of the story of Faust and the devil. He also recruits ballerina Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse) to star in the show with Tony.
The main tension of the film is the big differences and age of Tony and Gabrielle that need to be resolved if they are going to be able to work together. Cordova also keeps changing the show to be more over-the-top with elaborate sets and effects and making the show more of a serious metaphorical drama than the light comedy envisioned by Lily and Lester. Chaos ensues.
Once all the conflicts are resolved the film finishes up with several numbers for the actual show. I guess this was supposed to a victory lap for the performers but the movie fizzles out for me a this point, especially since none of these numbers would makes sense in a show together. “Triplets” is nightmare fodder and the big set piece, “Girls Hunt Ballet,” is weird but entertaining. It actually reminds a lot of “Broadway Melody” from MGM’s big musical of the previous year Singin’ in the Rain. In fact, the two movies have a lot in common, which makes The Band Wagon feel a little formulaic, but if you like one you’ll like the other.
It’s a good formula though, and I really like the part of the movie where they do song and dance about making a show better than the song and dance from the show. Standout numbers include “Shine Your Shoes,” “That’s Entertainment,” and “Dancing in the Dark.” If you like movie musicals you won’t be disappointed.
Title: Le Roman d’un tricheur
Release Date: 19 September 1936
Director: Sacha Guitry
Production Company: Films Sonores Tobis; Cinéas
Sacha Guitry directed, wrote (from an adaptation of his own novel) and starred in The Story of a Cheat, alternately Confessions of a Cheat. Guitry plays a man in his mid-50s writing his memoir and narrating the extended flashbacks of his life, including all the dialogue of his younger selves ( Serge Grave and Pierre Assy) have with other people. The Cheat’s story begins when he is orphaned as a 12-year-old and then runs away from his guardians after they rob him of his inheritance. The cheat works as a doorman and elevator operator at hotels, serves in the military, becomes a croupier in Monaco, and is charmed by beautiful women into participating in various cons and crimes. Eventually he becomes a professional card cheat, learning from his life experience that he makes money when he cheats and loses money when he’s honest.
The film is whimsical but I never find it laugh out loud funny. I wonder if this film inspired Jean-Pierre Jeunet because the stenatorian narration and quirky life story are reminiscent of movies like Amélie. Mostly though, I just started to feel that Guitry should shut up and let people act, because that non-stop narration got grating. I found The Story of a Cheat a mildly-entertaining picaresque but there’s nothing really great about it.
Title: Pierrot Le Fou
Release Date: 5 November 1965
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Production Company: Films Georges de Beauregard
I struggle with these French New Wave films, especially Godard’s, so I’m a bit relieved that this is that last one on my list. Although I think I may have been more receptive to Pierrot Le Fou had I been more in the mood for a weird, experimental film. The movie is about a man named Ferdinand Griffon (Jean-Paul Belmondo, who just recently passed away) who leaves his wife and family and boring middle-class life in Paris to run away with his old girlfriend Marianne Renoir (Anna Karina).
She insists on calling him Pierrot, which he hates. They go on a crime spree across France and are chased by both the police and gangsters from a right-wing paramilitary organization opposed to Algerian independence. Pierrot le Fou was clearly an influence on Bonnie and Clyde. The movie is more of a montage than a linear plot, linking various vignettes together. Some are comedy, some are eccentric, some are violent, and a couple are even musicals.
There’s a lot of overlapping narration from Ferdinand and Marianne, and references to philosophy and literature. I’m probably missing layers of significance but it all feels very pretentious.
Title: Le Mépris
Release Date: 29 October 1963
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Production Company: Rome Paris Films | Les Films Concordia | Compagnia Cinematografica Champion
Contempt is a movie about making a movie. In this case, German director Fritz Lang plays himself directing an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey on location in Italy. Sleazy American producer Jeremy Prokosch (Jack Palance) thinks that Lang’s vision for the film is too artistic and wants to create a blockbuster instead, so he brings in French playwright Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli) to rework the script. Javal’s wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) accompanies him to the film shoot. Early on it is established that they both suffer from a lack of confidence, Paul in his writing, and Camille of whether she is worthy of love.
Things are sent into motion when Paul has Camille ride with the lecherous Prokosch when going to his house for lunch, and then doesn’t show up himself until 30 minutes later. Camille fears that Paul is offering her to Prokosch as a beautiful young woman in order to advance his career. When Paul later sides with Prokosch over Lang on changes to the film, she is further disgusted with his lack of integrity. The better part of the film is the argument between Camille and Paul, first in their unfinished apartment and later on the cliffs at Capri.
This movie feels like it’s the type of movie that American sketch comedy shows spoof when they do a sketch about European films. Beautiful people in various states of undress argue past one another, shouting they’re no longer in love, while repressing why they feel that way. For some reason, Bardot is completely naked for a good portion of the film with the camera lovingly panning over her bare bottom. Bardot certainly has a lovely bum, but I’m not sure how presenting it to the audience repeatedly adds to the film’s plot. This movie is supposed to be Goddard thumbing his nose at mainstream filmmaking, but it feels to me like it’s just a poorly made melodrama. The constantly swelling music is inappropriate to the mood and Bardot and Piccoli seem to be acting wooden deliberately
I don’t know, I guess this is one of those movie I’m just not going to “get.”
Title: Casque D’or
Release Date: 16 April 1952
Director: Jacques Becker
Production Company: Robert et Raymond Hakim | Speva Films | Paris-Film Production
Casque D’or refers to the helmet of golden hair on the head of Marie (Simone Signoret), the center of a love triangle between the ex-con carpenter Georges Manda (Serge Reggiani) and the mob boss Félix Leca (Claude Dauphin). The Belle Epoque story feels like a gentile predecessor to West Side Story. More significantly it is a predecessor to the French New Wave movement which is probably why it made it on the Cahiers du Cinéma list. The film is well-produced and well-acted, but I found it a bit dull. The famed final scene takes on the senseless violence of capital punishment.
Title: Le Jour Se Lève
Release Date: 9 June 1939
Director: Marcel Carné
Production Company: AFE
On the top floor of a walk-up apartment building in a working class French neighborhood we hear an argument behind a door, then a shot. The door opens and a wounded man staggers out and then falls down the stairs. Those stairs play a central role in the film as they do in the apartment building and feature in some of Le Jour Se Lève’s most impressive camera work.
Alone in his room, François (Jean Gabin) reflects on how he came to kill a man. The scenes alternate between the police attempting to break into the apartment while concerned neighbors look on, and flashbacks to François’ memories. It begins when he meets a young florist’s assistant Françoise (Jacqueline Laurent) and they bond over their similar names and both being orphans. François falls in love with Françoise, but she is involved with Valentin (Jules Berry), an older man who trains and performs with dogs. François in turn forms a casual relationship with Valentin’s former assistant Clara (Arletty), but he doesn’t love her the way she loves him.
Things take a dark turn in this love quadrangle, as you might imagine, but it’s interesting how it plays out. This movie is described as poetic realism, a French film movement which kind of anticipates the later Italian neorealism, but more stylised. It’s a well-produced film with some good performances, especially by Gabin. I was kind of bummed out by the end, but I guess there weren’t many options for where this might go.
Release Date: June 24, 1955
Director: Fritz Lang
Production Company: MGM
I decided to watch the movies listed by the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma as the greatest of all time to supplement the AFI and Sight & Sound lists with movies that aren’t in English. So I’m continually surprised at the appearance of Hollywood movies in the French list that seem to have been forgotten in the United States. Moonfleet (like Letter From an Unknown Woman, which I also watched recently) does have notable European director. In this case it’s a late-career work of Fritz Lang, famed for making Metropolis and M.
Moonfleet is a full-on gothic adventure tale set on the coast of England in the 1750s and is reminiscent of Jamaica Inn and Treasure Island. The Fritz Lang touches include dramatic use of light and shadow, impressive set design, and underlying mood of menace. The titular village of Moonfleet is home to gangs of smugglers under the direction of a “gentleman,” Jeremy Fox (Stewart Granger). 9-year-old orphan John Mohune (Jon Whiteley) arrives in Moonfleet on the instruction of his recently deceased mother who was an old lover of Fox.
Fox is not too keen on having a child in his manor, but John shows surprising devotion to him as a “friend.” Eventually they get caught up in seeking the lost treasure of John’s ancestor “Redbeard.” Plots are made, some buckle is swashed, betrayals are made, and characters grow. It is a fun adventure with a lot of “mood.” But I don’t think our French friends have discovered a lost Hollywood masterpiece.