Another year draws to a close and the annual critical ritual of list-making reaches its apex, along with my concomitant realization that i’ve spent the last 12 months watching all the wrong films, a point underlined by my consternation at how few of the top films in Julien Allen’s recent Twitter poll (in which I took part) i’ve managed to take in before the close of the year.
As a form of cultural penance, then, I offer here a collection of some of the older films which I have come across and enjoyed in my cinematic travels over the past 12 months. Huge thanks to anyone who has pointed me in the direction of these, in particular my 20th Century Cube co-conspirator Pip Taylor, whose breadth and diversity of cinematic knowledge is forever keeping me on my toes. Happy new year everyone!
The elegant beauty of Michael Powell‘s first major work as a director ought to have come as little surprise to a seasoned acolyte of The Archers‘ output of the 1940s, but what was striking about The Edge of the World (1937) was how, even at this early stage in his career, his still-incubating talent appears already fully formed: the stark, poetic visual imagery, the air of windswept mystery and the sense of mournful wistfulness make this elegy to the mysterious beauty of the Outer Hebrides a near-equal of his later, more reflective pastoral masterpieces A Canterbury Tale (1944) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945).
March’s 20th Century Cube screening of Scarlet Street (1945) afforded me the excuse to delve into the murky depths of The Master of Darkness‘ American output, revealing numerous mini-masterworks ripe for future revisits – Ministry of Fear (1944), Hangmen Also Die! (1943), Secret Beyond the Door… (1947) and Man Hunt (1941) to name but a few – though none topped this haunting 1945 thriller in terms of lasting impact. Edward G. Robinson‘s masterful portrayal of an middle-aged naif caught in Joan Bennett and Dan Duryea‘s web of deception is noir at its most tenebrous.
Researching Jean-Pierre Melville for our May screening of his seminal Le Samouraï (1967) brought to my attention a number of his policiers I had not viewed before, most notably the magnificently shadowy, duplicitous Le Doulos (1962), but two of the stand-out films in his ouevre proved to be different beasts altogether to what I had been accustomed to from his work: Léon Morin, Prêtre (1961), a sober examination of theological and existential questioning against the backdrop of the Nazi Occupation of France, featuring towering, extraordinarily moving performances from Jean-Paul Belmondo and Emmanuelle Riva served to butter me up for the shattering experience of his début Le silence de la mer (1949), a sparse, minimalist drama revealing the deeply humanistic side of a director primarily associated with cool emotional detachment.
Dovetailing beautifully with Le silence de la mer, Mr Klein (1976), a fastidiously icy thriller directed by Joseph Losey and centring on Melville regular Alain Delon‘s morally questionable title character, places us in a near-purgatorial wartime Paris of paranoia and deceit, its queasy sense of omnipresent dread looking ahead to Costa-Gavras‘ (here an uncredited script writer) similarly devastating Missing (1982).
The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), an uproariously funny Launder and Gilliat production sadly now neglected in favour of the cultural phenomenon that was its inferior, informal sequel The Belles of St Trinian’s (1954), boasts Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford in typically sumptuous form, upstaged only by Joyce Grenfell‘s superbly-named hockey mistress Miss Gossage (“call me sausage”) and her over-zealous gong banging.
If the timing of Targets‘ (1968) initial release – in the year of the assassinations of both Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy – proved to be coincidentally apropos of contemporary events, then a viewing of it this year rendered it uncomfortably prescient in the wake of the events in Aurora and Newtown. The central conflict in Peter Bogdanovich‘s early feature – between the nostalgia for a wistfully recalled past and the fearful uncertainty of a nihilistic future – might be the quintessential American theme, a messy dialectic articulated nowhere as eloquently as here.
I had fastidiously avoided this follow-up to Cat People (1942) from a combination of my unabashed love of the original film and the impression, largely derived from Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), that the sequel would be a flimsy studio cash-in on the earlier film’s success. What I got, however, was a heartbreakingly beautiful treatise on loneliness and an elegy to the virtues of the childhood imagination. Sublime.
My watching of Hal Hartley‘s films had thusfar been both intermittent and somewhat scattershot, so researching him for October’s 20th Century Cube screening proved to be an immensely rewarding immersion in his back catalogue culminating in this, his magnum opus – a sprawling, ramshackle indie-epic, retaining elements of his signature style and recurring themes whilst expanding his canvas to envelop larger, more far-reaching concerns. In telling the story of Simon Grim, a shambling combination of Chauncey Gardner and Charles Bukowski, Hartley here alights on a definitive, if inherently contradictory, statement on the nature of his own artifice.
As with Powell’s The Edge of the World what was striking about The Landlord (1970), Hal Ashby‘s feature debut, was how fully formed his directorial vision arrived – both men’s careers testament to the virtue of working one’s way up from the lowest rungs of the film industry. Here, as in Harold and Maude (1971), Ashby again takes fire at the cloistered mores of white, bourgeois America, here presenting a wryly humorous look at race relations against the vibrant backdrop of a pre-gentrified New York.
Only a cursory glance at the cast list of Stage Door (1937) – featuring such luminaries as Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden and Lucille Ball – suggests this is practically essential viewing, but what really stands out in this gossipy backstage comedy-drama is the film’s whip-smart dialogue, delivered with enough sarcasm and at such velocity to give both Hecht and MacArthur a collective seizure.