Title: Ordet (The Word)
Release Date: 10 January 1955
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Production Company: A/S Palladium
Summary/Review: Ordet is a challenging movie to watch and a difficult one to review. I could say I liked it but I’m not sure that word encapsulates my feelings accurately. The film is a slow and austere examination of religious belief.
The story focuses on the family and community of Morten Borgen (Henrik Malberg), a widowed farmer in Denmark in 1925. His eldest son Mikkel (Emil Hass Christensen) has abandoned religion but is married to the pious Inger (Birgitte Federspiel), and they are expecting their third child. Inger’s troubled labor is central to the film’s plot. The youngest son Anders (Cay Kristiansen) wishes to marry a neighbor, Anne (Gerda Nielsen). But her father, Peter the Tailor (Ejner Federspiel), forbids the marriage because he lives by a more orthodox code of Christianity and doesn’t think Morten and his family are faithful enough. Finally, there is the middle child Johannes who is under the delusion that he is Jesus Christ.
As I noted, this is a slow-moving film and a serious one. It is a character study that explores the reactions of the characters to the challenges they face over the course of the film. I feel I’ll have to watch it again to have a hope of “getting it” but it was definitely a thought-provoking film on the first viewing.
Release Date: 19 December 1964
Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Production Company: Palladium
Summary/Review: Carl Theodor Dreyer, Danish director of the classic silent film The Passion of Joan of Arc, completed his career with this film, adapted from a play The film betrays its stage origins with several long drawing room conversations. In fact, Gertrud is famous for its long takes of up to ten minutes.
The titular Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) is a former opera singer who announces early on in the film that she wants to divorce her husband Gustav (Bendt Rothe), a politician who is on the verge of being appointed as a cabinet minister. She reviews her life and her future in ponderously long conversations with Gustav, her young lover Erland (Baard Owe), and an ex-lover Gabriel (Ebbe Rode).
I’ve never found it especially profound for an actor to speak in flat tones while staring off into the distance, but it’s especially tedious when it’s done for nearly two hours. Fortunately, I’m not alone in my dislike of this movie. It was booed when released at Cannes, and an early reviewer stated “Not a film, but a two-hour study of sofas and pianos.” I guess this one of those movies that might be affecting to some, but I am not among them.
Title: The Leopard
Release Date: March 27, 1963
Director: Luchino Visconti
Production Company: Titanus
Summary/Review: After being underwhelmed by Senso, a movie by the same director set in the same time period, I was not looking forward to watching another lengthy Italian historical drama. On the other hand, I don’t think I’ve ever watched a movie with Burt Lancaster in a starring role and I always like Claudia Cardinale, so I had those things to look forward to.
Lancaster plays Don Fabrizio Corbera, Prince of Salina in Sicily in 1860 at the time of Giuseppe Garibaldi’s war of Italian unification. His favorite nephew Tancredi (Alain Delon, L’Eclisse) is swept up in the romanticism of the rebellion and joins Garibaldi’s redshirts. The Prince more pragmatically supports Garibaldi from afar as a means of maintaining the aristocracy as it is. When traveling to his summer estate, the Prince reluctantly has to entertain the nouveau-riche mayor of the town Don Calogero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa). When Tancredi falls for Don Calogero’s daughter Angelica (Cardinale), the Prince once again pragmatically approves of the match since it will bring in much needed cash from Don Calogero’s coffers.
For a movie of this length, there isn’t much plot. Instead it’s a series of subtle performances among the sumptuousness of the elite’s lifestyle of the Prince contrasted with the crumbling world of the common people of Sicily. While I’m not all too interested in films about the fading of aristocratic society, since I think aristocracy should fade away, I have to admit that Lancaster’s nuanced performance makes the Prince a sympathetic character. This movie very easily could have been a melodrama, but instead it is something more restrained and revealing.
I have to confess that I watched this movie on a 3-disc DVD from the library. I popped in the first disc and watched the movie before realizing it was actually Disc 3, and what I watched was a shortened American version dubbed into English. Ironically, this is the only version of the film that features Lancaster’s voice since he’s dubbed by an Italian actor in other versions. I suppose that I failed to watch the version of the movie that earned the laudits of Cahiers du Cinéma and Sight and Sound, but I think I got a full taste of The Leopard for the time being.
Title: Lawrence of Arabia
Release Date: 10 December 1962
Director: David Lean
Production Company: Horizon Pictures
Who was T.E. Lawrence and why was he worthy of an extraordinarily-long biopic crafted by David Lean (Brief Encounter, Bridge on the River Kwai)? Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) is an enigmatic British Army lieutenant during the First World War whose eccentricities make him a poor fit for the rigid military hierarchy. He’s assigned as an advisor to the Arab troops under Prince Faisail (the very English Alec Guinness who nevertheless looks a lot like the real person) who are revolting against the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Lawrence uses this opportunity to try to unite fractious tribes in a Pan-Arab cause and make daring strikes against the Ottomans. He’s also not above burnishing his own legend.
I’m sure that smarter people than me have written about the problems of casting white actors as Arabs and the “white savior’ narrative in this story so I won’t get into that. But I will also point out that this film is actually critical of Lawrence, and even more so of his superiors who nakedly betray the cause of Arab independence. This movie also does a good job of relating Lawrence’s deteriorating mental health as he is shattered by the trauma of war.
There are a lot of great supporting actors in this film. Among them is Omar Sharif (an actual Arabic actor) who plays a tribal leader Sherif Ali ibn el Kharish. Initially, Ali is an antagonist to Lawrence but over the course of the film he becomes the voice of conscience as Lawrence goes off the deep end. Anthony Quinn plays a leader of a rival tribe and Jack Hawkins plays Lawrence’s put-upon superior officer. This is one of these movies that I will need to see on a big screen. It’s full of Lean’s trademark wide shots of desert landscapes, sunrises/sunsets, and troops riding camels and horses. All in all it’s a gorgeous yet complicated film!
Title: Imitation of Life
Release Date: March 17, 1959
Director: Douglas Sirk
Production Company: Universal-International[
For a Hollywood movie from 1959, Imitation of Life is surprisingly open about dealing with real issues of race and gender, and unsurprisingly a bit awkward in how it handles those issues.* The story focuses on two women, one white and one Black, who develop a close relationship over a dozen years in New York City, as well their relationships with their respective daughters. When we first be Lora Meredith (Lana Turner), she’s an aspiring actor and single mother raising her daughter Susie (Terry Burnham) in a single mother. Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore) is also a single mother who appears to be homeless at the start of the film, and offers to be Lora’s maid/cook in exchange for room and board for her and her daughter Sarah Jane (Karin Dicker). Sarah Jane is light-skinned and can pass for white which makes her struggle with her identity.
Lora is a is a surprising-for-1959 confident and assertive woman who achieves her dream of acting on her terms. She stands up to the men in her life including the lecherous agent Allen Loomis (Robert Alda) and paternalistic love interest Steve Archer (John Gavin). The second half of the film fast forwards a decade to a point where Lora is a prosperous Broadway star and living in a suburban mansion with Annie still working and living in her house with their now teenage daughters Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner) and Susie (Sandra Dee).
There are a lot of plotlines going on in Imitation of Life, which I get, because life is messy, but it feels that the prioritization of stories is off-kilter. Whenever the movie spent too much time delving into Lora’s acting career or Susie’s crush on Steve, I lost interest. Of course, the most interesting storyline about Sarah Jane and her problems with racial identity is the one most poorly handled. I feel the direction of the film made her into a rebellious teen who breaks her mother’s heart when they could’ve gone with a more nuanced approach. **
Of course, Imitation of Life is an extremely melodramatic film, although I think that works to its advantage for the most part. I expected this movie to be a lot more cringy than it was and am overall impressed with the effort at dealing with issues of race and gender in a popular film of the 1950s.
* As surprising as it is that this movie was made in 1959, it is actually based on a book from 1933 and was originally made into a movie in 1934!
** Just an observation, it doesn’t appear that Susan Kohner had any African American heritage. The 1934 film actually did cast a light-skinned African American actor, Fredi Washington, in the role.
Title: Apocalypse Now
Release Date: August 15, 1979
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Production Company: United Artists | Omni Zoetrope
For the purposes of this review, I watched Apocalypse Now Redux, which I’d never seen before because it was streaming on Netflix and I was too lazy to go to the library for the original version. The main difference is that 49 minutes of footage was added to the film ballooning the length to 202 minutes. Apocalypse Now is definitely better without the extra footage, but I didn’t find it made the movie any less watchable. In fact the story is so episodic that it would be possible to slide in and out various scenes to make several cuts that worked.
I first saw Apocalypse Now in college where it was something of a cult film among many of the students. I watched the movie several times over a couple of years in the early 90s but hadn’t watched it since. The movie depicts the war in Vietnam through a graphic depiction of the violence and brutality of that war. Granted, it is not a very factual depiction of the Vietnam War, but one that catches the essence of the madness of that war through an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Heart of Darkness. I read Conrad’s novel a couple of times in college and it was one of those books I struggled with maintaining my concentration. Although I do remember the narrator’s aunts advising him to wear flannel and write often from The Congo.
In the film, U.S. Army Captain Benjamin Willard (a very young-looking Martin Sheen) is ordered to sail upriver into Cambodia on a mission to assassinate Special Forces Colonel Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando). Kurtz has gone rogue from the Army and set himself up as a cult leader and warlord of his own army of indigenous people and other Americans gone A.W.O.L. On the journey upriver, Willard and the crew of a Navy river patrol boat (which includes Laurence Fishburne when he was only 14!) have many strange and disturbing encounters with members of the U.S. military and Vietnamese civilians (and in Apocalypse Now Redux, a family of French colonist holdouts). The structuring of the film almost follows that of a fantasy story or of a mythological heroes journey.
Except that there are no heroes in this movie. The further Willard and crew go into the jungle the further they descend into the darkest parts of their psyches. Kurtz on the other hand, has seen the madness of the war and embraced the madness. And yes the metaphor of “the jungle” and “indigenous people” representing the worst of humanity is as problematic in this movie as it was in Conrad’s novel. But beyond that this is an excellent movie with considerable skill in its production and excellent acting all around.
Release Date: 25 May 1979
Director: Andrei Tarkovsky
Production Company: Mosfilm
As I started watching Stalker, I started having flashbacks. Filmed in sepia tones with long shots and slow pans, the camera spends a lot of time focused on grimy interiors and muddy landscapes. As I watched absolutely nothing happen in great detail, I felt like I was reliving Sátántangó. Granted, Stalker is only a third of the length of Sátántangó, but it’s still a long time to watch the back of three men’s heads as they walk slowly through meadows and tunnels.
Stalker is a science fiction story about the Zone, an area struck by a meteor and possibly even visited by extraterrestrials, where the normal laws of physics don’t apply. Within the Zone is the Room where anyone who enters is granted their deepest desires. The Zone is encircled by a military cordon, but guides known as “stalkers” will lead people past the military and the presumed hazards of the Zone for a cost. In this film we see a Stalker (Alexander Kaidanovsky) take two clients, the Writer (Anatoly Solonitsyn) and the Professor (Nikolai Grinko), into the Zone.
Much like The Wizard of Oz, once they enter the Zone, the film changes from sepia tones to full (albeit muted) color. Unlike The Wizard of Oz, the hazards seem to be entirely in the mind of the protagonists and they spend a lot of time debating philosophy and religion. The Room ends up being a metaphor for belief and futility of existence. Stalker is clearly a well-made film with excellent cinematography, sound design, and set design. Everyone on Letterboxd raves about it in their reviews. But watching this movie felt like a slog for me and left me feeling cold.
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: 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 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.