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.
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
Release Date: June 11, 1975
Director: Robert Altman
Production Company: ABC Motion Pictures
I can’t say that I’ve ever seen a movie quite like Nashville. Even with the trademarks of a Robert Altman film – large ensemble casts and overlapping dialogue – there’s still something ineffable about this film I haven’t seen before. The general story involves the lives of several musicians, aspiring musicians, music biz people, political campaigners, and hangers-on on Nashville over a period of several days. The movie isn’t exactly plotless, as it does have a story to tell, but the plot is slow and messy not unlike real life.
Nashville is more of a character study of the 24 people in the movie with an underlying focus on celebrity culture. I’m glad this movie was made in Nashville instead of Los Angeles or New York. As a country music hub, Nashville is probably unique in that it has a strong celebrity culture while also being small enough where everyone keeps ending up in the same places. Or at least it was in the 1970s, as Nashville has grown in population in the intervening decades.
The film is full of musical performances, and interestingly the actors were tasked with writing their own songs and filming them in live concert settings. I don’t know much about country music, but honestly a lot of these songs sound like they could’ve been standards, so the soundtrack is worth seeking out. The movie also has political undertones in that a third-party candidate, Hal Phillip Walker (voiced by Thomas Hal Phillips) is campaigning in Nashville with a car traveling around the city reading his platform promises as a throughline through the film. The final scene is also set at a political rally (more on that below with a huge spoiler warning).
Among the cast, the standout performances include:
- Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese, a singer in a gospel choir who is raising two deaf children and is in an unhappy marriage with Delbert Reese (Ned Beatty) a lawyer in the music business and organizer for the Walker campaign. Linnea is by far the most fully-realized character and surprisingly this is Tomlin’s first movie role after years in television.
- Ronee Blakely as Barbara Jean, who is kind of the “sweetheart” star of country music who is in and out of hospitals with mental health issues.
- Karen Black as Connie White, another top female vocalist in the country scene who is set up as the rival to Barbara Jean.
- Henry Gibson as Haven Hamilton, a male country star who represents the Nashville old guard.
- Keith Carradine, a younger folk rock star who is party of a trio with a married couple, Bill and Mary (Allan F. Nichols and Cristina Raines) but wants to go solo. He also is Lothario who tries to use his charm and vulnerable persona to coax women into bed with him, including Linnea.
- Gwen Welles as Sueleen Gay, a young woman eager to get into the music business despite the fact that she sings off-key. Men take advantage of her ambition to give her opportunities to perform where she’s objectified for her beauty.
- Geraldine Chaplin (Charlie’s daughter) as a BBC radio reporter who is doing a story on Nashville who inserts herself into many scenes and blurts out the most loathsome things.
- The movie also features a baby-faced Scott Glenn in a small role as a Vietnam vet who is a big fan of Barbara Jean and the equally youthful Jeff Goldblum in a part where he never speaks but frequently appears around town on a motorized tricycle.
Even though I read a summary of the movie and knew what was coming, the end of the movie is still quite a shocker. (HERE COME THE SPOILERS) A disturbed loner we see throughout the movie (David Hayward) shoots and presumably kills Barbara Jean when she’s performing before a political rally. What happens next, beggars belief. Instead of people clearing the area, they stay together and sing. This is for a big twist in the film because a straggly aspiring singer named Albuquerque (Barbara Harris) is able to take the mic and prove that she’s actually talented despite appearances. But I also recalled that after the University of Texas tower massacre in 1966 that the school never canceled any classes. So the idea that people would want to go on with what they’re doing despite the violent attack seems true to the time.
Nashville is a long movie, and at times slow-going and just a bit too much. Nevertheless, it is artfully crafted and undeniably a great film. I’m glad I had the time to watch it.
Title: Mulholland Drive
Release Date: October 12, 2001
Director: David Lynch
Production Company: Les Films Alain Sarde | Asymmetrical Productions | Babbo Inc. | Le Studio Canal+ | The Picture Factory
Mulholland Drive starts off appearing to be one of David Lynch’s more straightforward films, but ends up being one of the most surreal. The main story is about Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), an effervescent young woman who arrives in Hollywood to pursue her dream of acting. Betty takes advantage of using her Aunt Ruth’s unoccupied apartment but discovers that there is a woman living there, an amnesiac car crash survivor who calls herself “Rita” (Laura Elena Harring). Betty tries to help Rita discover her real identity and the mystery of a large amount of cash and a blue key in her purse.
Betty’s story is intercut with vignettes of other events in Los Angeles, some of which never intersect with the main plot. But a storyline that does continue involves the movie directory Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) having a bad day where mobsters take over his film and cut off his bank account and he discovers his wife having an affair. In a normal movie these two plotlines would come together in a neo-noir caper that exposes the seedy underbelly of the Hollywood dream. In a David Lynch film, things get extremely surreal.
Lynch obviously has his own style, but I feel like this movie is also a tribute of sorts to Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Both movies are named after a significant road in Los Angeles and both deal with Hollywood myths and crime. The action of Sunset Boulevard begins with Joe Gillis hiding his car in a Hollywood mansion while the action of Mulholland Drive begins with Rita hiding herself in a Hollywood apartment. There also feels to be some influence from Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction in that they deal with the seedy underbelly of Hollywood and play with chronology. A scene in which a bungling hitman ends up having to kill three people and its played for comedy feels particularly Tarantinoesque.
But the heart of the movie, especially its most surreal final third, is pure David Lynch at his best. I read that Lynch originally envisioned Mulholland Drive as a tv series and I can see the movie being a tv pilot with scenes from various episodes, including the finale, cut into it. And yet somehow it works. A lot of credit needs to be given to Watts and Harring for the range of their performances, capturing different aspects of their characters or perhaps entirely different characters. I’m kind of glad I waited until now to finally watch this movie as I’m more able to simply enjoy ambiguity and consider multiple interpretations than I was when I was younger and wanted to know what it “means.”
Title: The Magnificent Ambersons
Release Date: July 10, 1942
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: RKO Radio Pictures | Mercury Productions
If your debut film is hailed as a masterpiece what do you do for a follow-up? If you’re Orson Welles you adapt a Booth Tarkington novel to present a period drama about a wealthy family in Indiana during the Gilded Age. This would also see the start of Welles’ off-screen conflicts that interfered with his vision for the project. In this case, RKO Radio Pictures heavily edited down his film and added a new ending. Most reviews I’ve read tend to focus on the challenge of following up Citizen Kane and the loss of Welles’ version of this film, so I’m just going to stick to what I watched.
The Ambersons are the richest family in town and daughter Isabel (Dolores Costello) is courted by Eugene (Joseph Cotten). When he makes a social faux pas, she chooses to marry another man. They have one child, George (played as an adult by Tim Holt who impressed me in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), a spoiled brat who has the townspeople wishing for his comeuppance. The main part of the film starts when George is college-aged and Eugene, now a widower, returns to town after a 20-year absence with his daughter Lucy (Anne Baxter, later to star in All About Eve). George and Lucy begin a romance but George can’t help but be hostile to her father who has become wealthy manufacturing automobiles. Efforts to appeal to George’s good side by his unmarried aunt Fanny (Agnes Moorhead), who also loves Eugene, or his uncle Jack (Ray Collins), fall on deaf ears. When George’s father dies and Eugene attempts to court Isabel, George blocks every chance for his mother’s happiness, eventually leading to the family’s downfall.
It’s really hard to convey how loathsome and sociopathic George is as a character. I know there are unpleasant people in real life and movies have to reflect that but there’s really nothing to care about in this movie when it’s just George making himself and everyone around him miserable all the time. Still, there were some things I like about this movement. The opening sequence where the townspeople appear to be interacting with Welles’ narration is cleverly done, and gave me the idea that the whole film would have a satirical feel to it rather than the melodrama we got. The scene where they try to start the “horseless carriage” in the snow is beautifully shot. As someone who dislikes cars, I also like the anti-automobile message of the movie, with even Eugene stating how damaging they can be. And the scene where George tells Lucy he’s leaving forever and she acts giddy about it is great (only marred a bit when we learn she was actually covering up that she was broken-hearted about it).
I don’t know what Welles’ version of this film would’ve been like, but this movie as it is was mostly a miss for me.
Title: 2001: A Space Odyssey
Release Date: April 3, 1968
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Production Company: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
I remember watching 2001: A Space Odyssey as a kid, excited to see a science fiction classic. I was not at all prepared to watch a slow-moving film with limited dialogue that touched upon themes of evolution and existentialism. It left me feeling a way I couldn’t describe with words, somewhere between disturbed and confused. Upon repeated viewings I was still confounded.
It’s been decades since the last time I watched 2001, yet it’s a movie I still think about a lot. So I was glad to revisit it as an adult with an appreciation for the the film’s cinematic innovations. I am also in a place where I’m much more comfortable with watching something and not having to know what it “means.” The film is impressive from the very beginning with the shot of the earth from the moon, released to cinemas before astronauts got the same view for the first time on Apollo 8 later the same year. The effects used to create weightlessness are also terrific and I particularly like the scene in the airlock.
The opening segment, “The Dawn of Man,” which particularly bored me as a child went by quicker than I remembered. It still feels like dioramas in the natural history museum have come to life, particularly since Kubrick shot it against backdrops rather than on location in Africa. The “Star Gate” segment, however, goes on for far longer than I remembered. Did hippies really even need to take hallucinogens before watching this?
The core of the movie is aboard the spacecraft Discovery One on a mission to Jupiter with astronauts David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood). They grow increasingly mistrustful of the intelligent computer HAL (voiced by Douglas Rain) which leads to horror and tragedy. The scene where Dave disconnects HAL’s circuits leading to HAL’s “death” is one of the most heartbreaking in film history even though it’s for a murderous computer.
In summation, 2001 is still a slow and “boring” film, but in a good way. It’s predictions of the future seem way off since humans have not left low-earth orbit since 1972. On the other hand, the corporate branding we see on everything seems spot on even if Pan-Am, Bell Telephone, and Howard Johnson’s restaurants didn’t make it to 2001. The movie is stunning visually, and it will make you think about important topics even if you can never figure out the right answers. This is definitely a movie I’d like to see on a big screen when I get the opportunity.
Title: Touch of Evil
Release Date: February 1958
Director: Orson Welles
Production Company: Universal-International
Touch of Evil takes place on the border of Mexico and the United States, beginning with someone placing a time bomb in a car in the sleazy Mexican border town that doesn’t explode until the driver crosses the border. Witnesses to the explosion include Mexican special prosecutor Ramon Miguel Vargas (Charlton Heston) and his newlywed wife Susan (Janet Leigh). Vargas takes an interest in the case and unravels the corrupt career of a racist American police captain, Hank Quinlan (Orson Welles). Meanwhile, Susan stays at an isolated motel not realising that it is owned by the sinister Grandi gang. Bad things always happen when Janet Leigh stays at a motel.
This is not a movie that you watch for the plot as it doesn’t make much sense if you think much of it and every scene exists simply to set up the next twist. Instead this is a movie you watch for the technical brilliance of its filming, particularly the camera work that is exemplified in the brilliant opening scene where we follow the car with the ticking time bomb and are simultaneously introduced to Vargas and Susan walking down the street. Heston may be the least Mexican person ever (he either has a deep tan or is wearing brownface) but he acquits himself well as the noble prosecutor. Welles for his part is suitably slimy as the cop who plants evidence on his suspects. Other notable performances include Dennis Weaver as the twitchy night manager of the motel (another precursor to Psycho) and Marlene Dietrich as the brothel owner and Quinlans ex-lover. This is the movie I’d like to see again on the big screen if I have the opportunity.
Note: I watched the 1998 version of the movie that was edited to Welles’ specifications.
Title: Rio Bravo
Release Date: April 4, 1959
Director: Howard Hawks
Production Company: Armada Productions
I was predisposed to hate this movie not just because the politics of a John Wayne Western tend to be loathsome but because it was made in response to High Noon, a movie I like that critiqued the blacklisting of Hollywood artists during the Red Scare. Wayne himself predictably declared that High Noon was “un-American” and wanted to make a movie portraying his vision of American machismo. Curiously, both France’s Remove term: Cahiers du Cinéma and England’s Sight and Sound selected Rio Bravo for their greatest films lists and not High Noon, but the American Film Institute list includes only High Noon.
In Rio Bravo, Wayne is John T. Chance the sheriff of a Texas town who arrests the bratty Joe Burdette (Claude Akins) for murder. The problem is that Joe’s older brother is a wealthy land baron who has his men surround the town and make several attempts to release Joe. Chance has to rely only on the help of his deputies while they wait for the Marshall to take Joe away. There’s Dude (Dean Martin), a recovering alcoholic with the shakes, the old and crippled Stumpy (Walter Brennan), and the young gunslinger Colorado (Ricky Nelson). Chance also forms a romance with a sassy young widow, Feathers (Angie Dickinson).
The movie works as a collection of successful Western tropes crafted together. This is not a criticism as not everything needs to me innovative to be good, just sometimes need to bring things that worked together in new ways. I like the easy camaraderie among Chance, Dude, Stumpy, and Colorado. Martin’s acting performance is particularly good in this film (and why has Robert Downey, Jr. not starred in a Dean Martin biopic?). There’s a great scene where Rat Pack crooner Martin and teen idol Nelson sing a duet, a nice nod to the pop culture of the 1950s. Angie Dickinson looks and acts like a 1950s woman, but somehow that works too. And I think I’d love to see a movie where Brennan plays every character as his cackling old galoot.
All in all, Rio Bravo is better than I expected, and probably a great example of the classic Hollywood Western for a novice viewer, but it won’t be getting anywhere near my own all-time favorite movie list.