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.
Title: Steamboat Bill, Jr.
Release Date: May 12, 1928
Director: Charles Reisner
Production Company: United Artists
Buster Keaton stars as William Canfield, Jr., a young man who finishes college in Boston and goes to join his father (Ernest Torrence), a riverboat captain in the South nicknamed “Steamboat Bill.” Canfield, Sr. is caught in a rivalry with another riverboat captain, John James King (Tom McGuire) with a newer, more luxurious boat. He hasn’t seen his son since he was a baby and is disappointed that Canfield, Jr. is small and unaccustomed to manual labor. To make matters worse, Canfield, Jr. is in love with a young woman, Kitty (Marion Byron) who is also visiting her father, who turns out to be none other than King. Hijinks ensue.
Compared to other Keaton films I watched, this one took a long time to get going. It really doesn’t have much in the way of stunts or even funny gags for the most part. The end of the film involves a big storm in the town where buildings collapse like matchsticks. This includes one of Keaton’s most famous stunts where the facade of a house falls toward him, but he survives by being right in the path of an open window. All of this comes a little bit too late though, so Steamboat Bill, Jr. fails to be a comedy classic.
Title: Being John Malkovich
Release Date: October 29, 1999
Director: Spike Jonze
Production Company: Gramercy Pictures | Propaganda Films | Single Cell Pictures
Being John Malkovich is an extremely weird movie, perhaps even weird to revisit 20 years later when the real-life Malkovich is no longer a prominent celebrity. This movie is so weird that I even forgot that there’s a chimpanzee in this movie named Elijah, and there’s even a scene of Elijah having a flashback. The basic premise of this movie (and it’s heavy on premise) is that struggling puppeteer, Craig Schwartz (John Cusack), takes a job filing on the mysterious 7-1/2 floor of a New York City office building. There he discovers a small door hidden behind a filing cabinet that serves as a portal into the mind of John Malkovich (John Malkovich).
Craig and his co-worker Maxine (Catherine Keener) start a business charging $200 a pop for people interested in being someone else for 15 minutes. To complicate things further, both Craig and his wife Lottie (Cameron Diaz) fall in love with Maxine, but she is only attracted to them when they are inside Malkovich, creating – dare I say – a bizarre love quadrangle. Being John Malkovich is a weird movie, but I wouldn’t say it’s weird for being weird as it goes to some unexpected places. You could poke at the many plot holes in this movie (like, how do they keep driving to New Jersey so quickly), but where’s the fun in that.
This may be the first movie where Cusack isn’t playing a nice guy. Not unlike Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo, the movie takes advantage of our fondness for the actor to have the audience on his side even though he is a clearly messed-up individual. I have to say as a content warning that there’s a scene where Craig beats on Lottie and that ties her up and puts her in a cage that is very disturbing. But if you can get past that, Being John Malkovich is a funny, albeit unsettling, modern day fantasy film.
Title: The Mummy
Release Date: May 7, 1999
Director: Stephen Sommers
Production Company: Alphaville Films
The Mummy is a lot of things: a remake of a Universal horror classic with 1990s sensibilities, a Raiders of the Lost Ark type of adventure with CGI, and a star vehicle for Brendan Fraser (who doesn’t seem to appear in big movies anymore). It’s kind of trash, but it’s fun trash if your looking for a goofy adventure. Fraser plays adventurer Rick O’Connell who guides librarian Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and her brother Jonathan (John Hannah) to Hamunaptra, the lost city of the dead for Ancient Egypt. They face rival parties of treasure hunters and awaken the mummy of Imhotep. Chaos ensues until everything is resolved as you might expect. The movie gets extra credit for having Evelyn balancing on a library ladder and drunkenly proclaiming “I am a librarian” which have served well as memes in the library community for so many years.
Title: Men in Black
Release Date: July 2, 1997
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Parkes/MacDonald Productions
Men in Black could’ve easily been “Ghostbusters with aliens” or just a star vehicle for Will Smith, but it turned out to be a whole lot more. The movie draws upon the UFO conspiracy theory of government agents in dark suits who cover up alien encounters and more directly from The Men in Black comic book series based on the lore. I was impressed by the economy of the opening scenes in establishing the role Men in Black in policing refugee extraterrestrials on Earth (with a subtle political message about immigration built into it). The rest of the film builds on the concept as we follow new recruit Agent J (Smith) learns from the grizzled veteran Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones).
The stakes are high, the destruction of earth, but the conflict with the villain, a roach-like creature in a human skin named Edgar (Vincent D’Onofrio) is very down to earth. Linda Fiorentino fills out the cast as Laurel, a doctor in the city morgue who has her memory erased multiple times for discovering aliens on Earth. The film has a lot of great sight gags and humor and Jones and Smith have a great chemistry together. This is also a great New York City film where the Guggenheim Museums becomes the perfect setting for a foot chase and the 1964 World’s Fair New York Pavilion is home to flying saucers in disguise (with a cameo by my late, lamented Shea Stadium).
I never saw the Men in Black sequels, and I don’t know if I want to, but this original film stands the test of time. My kids liked it too. A recent podcast episode from Unspooled discusses Men in Black and the hosts get into the weeds of an interesting conversation of how this movie marked the end of an era for blockbuster films preceding our current comic book/superhero dominated film landscape.
Title: Ace in the Hole
Release Date: June 14, 1951
Director: Billy Wilder
Production Company: Paramount Pictures
Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), an arrogant and cynical reporter who has lost jobs at various big city newspapers, bullies his way into a job at an Albuquerque newspaper. His plan is to get “one big story” to launch him back into the big time. A year later, while on assignment, he stops for gas at a desert trading post and learns that the owner is trapped in a cave where he was looking for Native American artifacts. Tatum enters the cave to befriend and photograph the trapped Leo Minosa (Richard Benedict). Outside the cave, Tatum takes control of the rescue operation manipulating everyone to maximize his “human interest” story.
Ace in the Hole is a not-at-all subtle satire of sensational news media and the general public who laps it up. It’s acidly funny and horrifying at the same time. Douglas puts in a particularly good performance shifting from self-aggrandizing and commanding to playing kind and sympathetic when talking with Leo. Jan Sterling plays Leo’s wife Loraine who wants nothing more than to leave Leo and New Mexico for good, but uses the literal carnival that grows around the trading post to profit. Ray Teal is the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer who allows Tatum exclusive access to Leo in return for positive news coverage for his re-election campaign. Tatum also acts as kind of a negative mentor for Herbie Cook (Robert Arthur), the young and idealistic newspaper photographer who gets sucked into Tatum’s plot.
Like all Billy Wilder films, Ace in the Hole is magnificently scripted with sparkling dialogue. It is also beautifully filmed and tightly edited, so there’s a lot of story in a short movie. Since I started investing a lot of time into watching classic film that past couple of years, I’ve been impressed by Wilder’s films, so I’m glad to add another one, even if Ace in the Hole isn’t quite as magnificent as Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, or The Apartment.
Title: Letter from an Unknown Woman
Release Date: April 28, 1948
Director: Max Ophüls
Production Company: Rampart Productions
Set in fin de siècle Vienna, this film begins with a concert pianist, Stefan Brand (Louis Jourdan), receiving a letter from a unknown woman (clever, eh?). Oh, but he should know here because she is Lisa Berndle (Joan Fontaine) who has loved him for years. Lisa’s voice reads the letter which doubles as the film’s narration going back to when she was a teenager and Stefan moved into a neighboring apartment. She falls for his music and then helplessly in love with him and keeps that flame going even when her mother remarries and they move to Linz.
Years later, Lisa finally meets Stefan and they have a romantic night that results in her pregnancy. Stefan disappears and Lisa eventually marries another man who agrees to raise her son. When Lisa and Stefan finally meet again, he doesn’t remember her at all. Oh, it is all so tragic.
There are things I like about this movie. It’s beautiful filmed with the flowing camera movement that Max Ophüls would go on to use so well in Madame de… The set design is also excellent. I really like the Vienna apartments that are all wound together and the use of snow on the ground is impressive. And I always like Fontaine as she is excellent at playing characters who are uncertain and anxious, yet determined (and also rather foolish in their selection of romantic interests). But overall this movie is heavily melodramatic and rather boring. I guess this story of unrequited love is just not for me.
Title: The Color of Pomegranates
Release Date: 1969
Director: Sergei Parajanov
Production Company: Armenfilm
Summary/Review: This art film made in Soviet Armenia tells the story of a poet named Sayat-Nova. This is not your typical biopic. The effort is made to tell the story of a poet through visual poetry rather than conventional narrative. The film has very little dialogue and is structured as a series of tableaus. The camera is pointed straight on at people posing and holding or manipulating objects. A lot of these objects have symbolic significance although I don’t have the knowledge of what they mean. It’s almost as if one is watching a series of memes from a culture you know nothing about. Nevertheless, the film has a lot of striking imagery. It also has a lot of horses with a strange canter, chickens, and sheep. So many sheep. I know the counterculture is not likely to have made inroads in Soviet Armenia in 1969 but this movie does feel awfully trippy.
Rating: I have no rational basis on which to rate this as a film
Title: Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Release Date: June 22, 1988
Director: Robert Zemeckis, Richard Williams (animation director)
Production Company: Touchstone Pictures | Amblin Entertainment | Silver Screen Partners
I was 14 when Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released and greatly anticipated seeing the movie having always loved animation and in the midst of a phase where I was obsessively watching old Warner Bros. shorts. When I finally did see the movie, I was disappointed. I found Roger Rabbit (voiced by Charles Fleischer) to be annoying, Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd) to be overly creepy (especially in his ultimate demise), and everyone using the term “toons” to be overly affected. I feel like the movie was poorly received at the time, but it has been reconsidered as a classic so I had to watch it again.
Revisiting the movie as an adult I find that I have a better frame of reference for the film noir pastiche which is well done. I also appreciate incorporating the real-life story of powers-that-be wanting to dismantle the Los Angeles streetcar system and build freeways. The anti-car ethos resonates with me. Bob Hoskins does an excellent job as the gruff straight man portraying detective Eddie Valiant investigating the murder of Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye) and why Roger Rabbit was framed for the killing.
This movie, of course, wows with the technical brilliance of incorporating animated characters into live action with a level of reality never before achieved (and never since as computer animation soon became the dominant form of the art). There’s a scene where Eddie enters Toon Town for the first time and drives through the psychedelic world of toon’s singing “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!” that is absolutely brilliant, and that was my favorite part when I was younger. I kind of wish more of the movie was like that, because for all its technical brilliance, I still don’t find Who Framed Roger Rabbit to be funny for the most part. And for a family film, it also has a lot of elements that are over kids’ heads.
I definitely like this movie a lot more than I did when I was younger. Roger Rabbit is still annoying and Judge Doom is still creepy, but there’s a lot of style and mood as well as nods to film history that I can appreciate. I just feel that this movie had the opportunity to be a whole lot more.