To argue that old Hollywood has no place in a discussion of post-modern moviemaking is to question the existence of words before the creation of literature. More than any other time in the artform’s history, the years between 1900 and 1960 saw a seismic shift in both the science and style of motion pictures. Just think about it for a moment; the big screen effort moved from short subject to epic, from silent to sound, monochrome to magnificent Technicolor, all while watching production elements like writing, directing and acting take the medium from meaningful to masterpiece. Trying to encapsulate the staggering changes that occurred in this era is near impossible. The ten choices championed here are merely meant as time capsule touchstones—not definitive examples—of the major contributions of the time. They stand as illustrations of pure classicism, the culmination of everything that the Golden Age of Hollywood (and cinema in general) stood and strived for.
The Passion of Joan of Arc
La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc
Maria Falconetti, Eugene Silvain, André Berley, Maurice Schutz, Antonin Artaud
(Société générale des films)
US theatrical: 28 Mar 1929 (Limited release)
The Passion of Joan of Arc
The Passion of Joan of Arc is one of those “classic” films that is, I suspect, more praised than viewed. This is a damn shame, because the film itself remains one of the most singular and unforgettable visions in the history of the cinema. These kind of big words wouldn’t mean a lot if they weren’t backed by the film itself. Shot almost entirely in intense, vertiginous close-up (despite the unprecedented amounts of money spent on designing state-of-the-art sets for the production), the film wouldn’t be so much as a footnote with Renée Falconetti’s luminous performance as the title ingénue. Simple but not simple-minded, propelled to her inevitable death by inconceivably pure religious conviction, Falconetti’s performance is as complex and heartbreaking as you are ever likely to see. It’s easy enough to fall back on inherited hyperbole when describing something that has attained such mythic stature, but in this case the hyperbole is simply unavoidable: this is one of the great performances in film history, the yardstick by which everything else has been measured for almost 80 years.
With a film this good and so singularly important, the supplemental features almost seem beside the point. The fact that the film exists for us to view in any capacity is a testament to the diligent work of many nameless technicians, who worked tirelessly to restore the film from decaying cellulose stock to the radiant, crisp print we have now available on Criterion DVD. (Illustrative examples of this Herculean task are included with the DVD’s supplements.) While Dreyer himself intended for the movie itself to be absorbed in silence—without the customary musical accompaniment—a new score by composer Richard Einhorn, entitled “Voices of Light”, is included as an optional track on the release. There are also a number of other additions, including production notes, interviews and commentary tracks from noted scholars, but for anyone but the most committed film buffs these features are merely superfluous. If ever there was a case of film supplements “gilding the lily”, it was The Passion of Joan of Arc, a film of such transcendent force as to render even the most learned explication moot.
Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Boris Karloff
US theatrical: 21 Nov 1931 (General release)
It doesn’t really matter how many times the story of the monster known as Frankenstein gets the big-screen treatment. Say the name and the imagination automatically grabs the lurching black and white image of Boris Karloff, arms forward, shambling along out of its cellar.
The word for that kind of image, the kind that sticks, is iconic.
The love that director James Whale gave to this film is legendary, in fact inspiring a movie of its own, Gods and Monsters, years later.
The Universal Legacy Series anniversary edition celebrates 75 years of this masterwork’s place in the public consciousness. Re-mastering has cleaned up some of the audio and visual grit, though not so much that it loses that classic movie feel. The sepia-toned cover created for this edition is undeniably a work of love, evoking the feel of the creature and of classic cinema at the same time. Bonuses include the standard commentary and documentary features as well as “Boo!” a fun tongue-in-cheek monster short.
As far as the feature field itself, hey: these are the storm-dark nights and sunlit fields that inspired generations of filmmakers to craft their own tales, with varying degrees of success.
This is the big daddy of them all.
—Jason A. Zwiker
La Règle du jeu
The Rules of the Game
Nora Gregor, Paulette Dubost, Mila Parély, Odette, Claire Gérard
(Nouvelle edition française)
Very limited release: 8 Apr 1950
La Règle du jeu
Sometimes, a film is heralded as a classic because of the story it tells. Other times, it is the technical achievements that went into its making that earns it permanent display in history’s Hall of Fame. Then there are the movies that transcend their times and strike a chord so universal and important that no one can logically reject their virtuosity. So it is no surprise that The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir’s heralded 1939 dark comedy of manners is considered a masterpiece of modern cinema. It embodies all three of these precepts and then goes on to write a few commandments all its own in the stone tablets of movie making. Combining the elements of farce with romance, near Shakespeare tragedy with social commentary, Renoir introduces us to the near-fall of western civilization (the pre-WWII decadence of Continental Europe) as a weekend in the country for France’s philistine upper class. Filled with foreboding about the upcoming upheaval in the world (the calm atmosphere of the country manor is occasionally startled by the blasts of random gunfire from surrounding “hunters”) and laced with a lyrical sense of social slander, this is a movie that makes its case for timelessness from its first frames.
Thanks to the preservation experts at Criterion, Renoir’s monumental achievement has been given the kind of contextual meaning that makes its acceptance as a masterpiece all the more relevant. In between the audio commentaries (one featuring the filmmaker himself), a collection of interview clips, a documentary highlighting the film’s production and location work, and a booklet overloaded with essays from modern day admirers, we sense that something special is indeed locked inside Renoir’s deceptive direction. In essence, it’s like jazz. It’s not what we see onscreen, it’s what we don’t see that counts. For an artform still stuck in an overly arch and theatrical performance paradigm, Renoir’s naturalism and invention helped redefine the language of film. Like Citizen Kane two years later, Rules rewrote the boundaries of cinematic creativity—and viewing it some 70 years later is still as eye-opening as it was back then.
Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Porter Hall
US theatrical: 6 Sep 1944 (General release)
The moment that actress Barbara Stanwyck looks down from the staircase at the poor schlub insurance salesman—her body covered by a white towel, face offering a sultry femme fatale look—you decide she’s the kind of woman a man could kill for. Last year’s DVD release cleans up the old black and white film, making it clear why a clean-cut businessman would throw his career away for such a dame. The dialogue, still snappy as ever, sounds amazing. And, in case you were distracted by Stanwyck’s sly winks, some incredible commentary tracks explain why the film is a classic. The first track, narrated by film historian Richard Schickel give insight into both the film and its hard-bitten, heavy drinking screenplay writer Raymond Chandler. The collection even contains a version of the vastly inferior made-for-television version.
The DVD could double as a film class. Shadows of Suspense is a documentary explaining the history of noir. The movie itself is a lesson in highly-stylized film making and the underbelly of humanity. This year is the 100th anniversary of Stanwyck’s birth, which makes it a perfect time to remember how significant these films—and Double Indemnity in particular—are. They’re keys to the dark gangster spirit of America. Beautiful women are always dangerous, and if you want to live outside the law, you need to be honest.
“Know why you couldn’t figure this one, Keyes? I’ll tell ya. ‘Cause the guy you were looking for was too close. Right across the desk from ya,” Walter Neff says at the climax of the film. When you’re watching Double Indemnity, all you can do at that point is shake you head and mutter to yourself, “Well ain’t that the truth.”
Sunset Boulevard (Special Collector’s Edition)
William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Fred Clark
When Joe Gills enters Norma Desmond’s house for the first time, and watches a sheet being placed over a dead ape, you know things are rapidly going to hell. She’s a lunatic who checked out from reality since her silent film days. He’s the piss-poor screenwriting hack, at least twenty years her junior, she hired to make her a star once more. The conceit still seems fresh today—Sunset Boulevard is an ode to old Hollywood, as well as an examination of insanity on par with A Streetcar Named Desire.
“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.” Actually, Desmond is right on the money. It’s about time the film got cleaned up, and it looks pristine on DVD. Time past, if you watched the black and white print, you had to conclude that the haze and obscurity was intentional. Now, you can pick apart every prop in Desmond’s home—a physical shrine to lunacy like Xanadu—and (if it’s your bag) take notes on all the symbolism. When Desmond stands up against the projector, the smoke from her cigarette roiling into the air, it’s enough to gasp. Desmond, the actress who’s still “big. It’s the pictures that got small,” finally has an edition worth being seen in.
Singin’ in the Rain
Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly
Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen
US theatrical: 11 Apr 1952 (General release)
Singin’ in the Rain
Many consider it the last great studio musical, but such a delineation tends to undermine the majesty—and the moxie—of this terrific Hollywood satire. Under the direction of genre veteran Stanley Donen (with significant help from star Gene Kelly) what began as a look at the effect sound had on the entire silent film business become a celebration of movement and the essential joy in song. Containing several classic numbers (“Good Morning”, “Moses Supposes”, “Make ‘Em Laugh”, the memorable title track) and a formula-defying last act centerpiece that combined the grace of ballet with big budget spectacle, Rain pushed the limits of both scope and storytelling. Along with Kelly’s creative footwork—simultaneously athletic and artistic—and a solid onscreen chemistry between actors, the passion for performance comes across brilliantly. While many praise the primary players (including co-stars Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor), it is the sensational supporting work of Jean Hagen as our vocally challenged leading lady Lina Lamont that literally steals the show. Whenever she opens her mouth and her cartoon squawk of a cheap dame accents emerges, the entire film’s kinetic energy is collected and unleashed.
Initially available in a bare bones DVD presentation that failed to supplement the magic of the movie (or even offer it in its proper theatrical aspect ratio), the two disc special edition released in 2002 does a marvelous job of contextualizing this classic. Perhaps the most interesting facet is a full length audio commentary that collects as many of the living cast and crew as possible, allowing them all to reminisce and redefine the movie’s role in their lives. Between the wisenheimer chutzpah of screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, to the heartfelt homage—and history lesson—from filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, there is plenty of perspective provided. Even better, the second disc offers up an amazing documentary on Arthur Freed. Famous for his production unit at MGM (which made 40 some musicals for the studio between 1939 and 1958), this behind the scenes look showcases where Rain got its amazing production values—and why it ends up being a solid summary of the entire silver screen song and dance dynamic.
The Seven Samurai
Shichinin no samurai
Takashi Shimura, Toshirô Mifune, Yoshio Inaba, Seiji Miyaguchi
Very limited release: 19 Nov 1956
The Seven Samurai
It’s virtually impossible to try to sum up in a few words a masterpiece like Akira Kurosawa’s Sichinin no samurai or better know in the English speaking world as The Seven Samurai. Everyone should own a copy of this DVD with its adventures of those seven soldiers of fortune/samurai that protect a Japanese village from a gang of marauding bandits in the late 16th century. But not just because of the bonus features or the commentary, the interviews, etc. No, they should own it because this film is truly one of the greatest ever made.
Technically and creatively, The Seven Samurai has become a standard for the global film industry that even today, 53 years after it was filmed, still remains as lively as ever. The plot element of the heroes recruited into a team to accomplish a specific goal is apparent in movies like Ocean’s Eleven, while Critic Roger Ebert insists that the sequence of the champion being introduced into the plot with an undertaking unrelated to the main story was originated there.
But if you want to stick to the movie itself and cast aside all the references and the different styles it has inspired, watching it you will still find you embraced by a set of emotions hard to describe. The Japanese master once said that he wanted to make a movie that would be so much fun that he could eat while watching. What he actually achieved though was to create one of the greatest films ever made—if not the greatest.
The Night of the Hunter
Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters, Lillian Gish, James Gleason
US theatrical: 29 Sep 1955
The Night of the Hunter
For being shot in 1955, Night of the Hunter is so far ahead of its time, it’s shocking. The film follows a demonic murdering preacher, Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum, at his daring career best) as he paints a trail of blood across the Gothic Deep South; serially marrying, and then killing, widows (and other disadvantaged country bumpkins) for whatever they have.
This is where I should mention that Hunter also functions as a sort of timeless children’s fairytale. When Harry meets Willa (Shelley Winters), a woman whose husband he knew on death row, he also takes on her two children, Pearl and John. The kids are the only ones who know where their Daddy hid a stash of $10,000. When Harry finds out that Willa cannot help him, he ruthlessly executes her (in a visually stunning and horrifying scene), and hides her body in a car drowned deep in the river. He then goes after the children, who escape in a row boat up the river with the doll that holds their father’s stolen loot. They land at the home of a good, Christian woman named Rachel (the glorious Lillian Gish in her most fully-realized foray into pictures), who, fortunately for them, takes in orphans (I’m a strong tree with branches for many birds. I’m good for something in this world and I know it too”). She is a mythical mother figure who is the only thing that will be able to prevent Harry from murdering the children.
Mitchum already had a rep as Hollywood’s biggest bad-ass at this point, but watching the perverse look on his face as he explains the story of his tattooed hands (which read “love” and “hate”) to the children is at once hysterical and terrifying. Mitchum took a risk playing this loathsome creation and it paid off. He originated the serial killer who is still goofy and easy to laugh at. The animal-like unpredictability and unrefined edges of Mitchum’s performance are what make Harry such a memorable character. One minute he is preaching the word and talking to God, the next he is wallowing in muddy water brandishing a knife against a four year old. Any actor considering playing such a part should be required, by law, to watch Mitchum repeatedly for pointers.
Director Charles Laughton only made this one film during his career behind the camera (he was an Oscar winning actor for The Private Life of Henry VIII), but his masterful use of haunting sets, lighting, and dark story-book imagery belies his experience as a moviemaker. The iconic shot of a hymn-singing Gish rocking in her chair holding a shotgun, lying in wait for Harry to attack inspired Tori Amos’ Boys for Pele and is one of the film’s most beautiful sequences: as Harry creeps nearer and nearer, we can also hear him singing a counter-melody to Rachel’s hymn. When he arrives at the house, it is a perfect duet. That Laughton never again made a film is puzzling - and a damn shame.
A Face in the Crowd
Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Anthony Franciosa, Walter Matthau, Lee Remick
US theatrical: 28 May 1957
A Face in the Crowd
This visceral, Budd Schulberg-penned satire on fame, media manipulation and demagoguery, now looks so shockingly prescient that it should have been handed out to Americans by The Gideons instead of Bibles. Crude but charismatic hillbilly Larry ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes (Andy Griffith in a stunningly powerful debut), discovered in prison and recruited to her ‘Face in the Crowd’ radio show by roving reporter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), finds his populist appeal propelling him to national stardom and his own television show. The first thing Rhodes does on TV is turn his monitor round so the audience can see it, and this insidious habit of pretending to subvert the medium and let the audience in on the joke, while actually doing the reverse, makes him a ‘wielder of opinion’, looking down from his New York penthouse on a forest of TV aerials and marveling at how they’re all waiting to see what he has to say. Becoming a front for plutocratic businessmen and politicians shooting for the White House—who know that in the TV age, the nascent audience needs “capsule slogans… punch-lines and glamour”—Rhodes joins them in decrying how social security ‘weakens moral fiber’. He also adopts their proto-neocon philosophy, one that states that in a civilization the masses must “be guided with a strong hand by a responsible elite.” A jeremiad against the growing power of the small screen in particular, the film also depicts how the media in general conspire in keeping celebrities’ public images fictional, as well as making that fiction news.
The story goes that Richard Nixon was pacing back and forth awaiting his appearance on a 1967 TV show, and bemoaning having to bother with this stupid gimmicky new medium, when a man retorted that TV was the wave of the future and if he didn’t want to sink then he’d best be on it. That man was Roger Ailes, whose TV savvy helped get Nixon elected. Lonesome Rhodes’s eventual fate bears some similarity to Richard Nixon’s, but neither man’s downfall made a fundamental change to the system—and there is always someone waiting in the wings. Ailes later coached Reagan and GW Bush in TV skills, before being hand-picked by Rupert Murdoch to head up Fox News, where the various strands of advertising, PR, populist politics, entertainment and religion were finally bound up into one irreducibly tight nexus.
The disc contains an illuminating and worthwhile documentary, including some discussion of Elia Kazan’s still-controversial testimony to the HUAC hearings. The real joy here though is having such a clean transfer of a film that’s long been unavailable on DVD. A Face in the Crowd is a gem that got hidden among more famous Kazan films such as East of Eden and On the Waterfront. Now that it’s been polished up it must surely be counted among the best films of its time.
Imitation of Life
Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee, Robert Alda, Susan Kohner
US theatrical: 17 Apr 1959 (General release)
Imitation of Life
In a culminating scene from the 1959 Universal Pictures classic Imitation of Life, one of the film’s central characters, Lora Meredith (played by Lana Turner) sits expressing inconsolable grief by the bedside of her critically ill long-time friend, subordinate black maid Annie, (Juanita Moore). Suddenly, the focal point of this utterly emotion-suffused moment is subtly wrested away by a single framed photograph of the dying woman’s smiling bi-racial daughter. With this imagery, the viewer is reminded, if not awakened, to the sensation that lurking just beneath every pronouncement, every visual shading and figure in this film, is a fuller, deeper significance.
Long past are the days when a skeletal film plot could be upstaged by the cinematic elements employed to support it. Fortunately, Douglas Sirk, (All that Heaven Allows, Magnificent Obsession, All I Desire) held the patent on such constructions. Sirk transformed, (in what would be his last turn at the Hollywood directorial helm) an unreservedly melodramatic script into a complex, allegorically driven social commentary on the oft-inextricably linked constructs of materialism and race.
In the story, Lora, a white single mother and aspiring actress (Turner) befriends and houses a black woman (Moore) and her daughter (Susan Kohner). Although with the progression of time Lora acquires the fame and wealth she so single-mindedly pursued, the trade-off is the absence of romantic stability and a certain detachment from her own daughter (Sandra Dee). Annie, a constant support, is never absolved of the obligation to preface her friend/employer’s name with “Ms,” and is also challenged by her relationship with her own offspring, who is resolute in her conviction that “passing” for white is her only chance at happiness. She chooses to reject her mother altogether—providing the film with one of its most resonantly heartbreaking sequences.
Faithful to its title, Imitation is an emotionally poised journey into the deceptive guises donned by its characters, who are either too reluctant or fearful to dismantle the petty contrivances and illusory conventions that shade their lives. While the DVD features only minimal bonus features (its original trailer and a listing of recommended films) Imitation, with so much of its essence resting between the lines, is a lushly stratifying experience—making repeat viewing’s both a necessity and a luxury.