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Human Desire (1954)
Suspenseful and Thought-Provoking Film Noir
I always thought of Fritz Lang's HUMAN DESIRE as one of his lesser films: the lesser of the two Renoir remakes, the lesser of the two Glenn Ford / Gloria Graham films, simply a less interesting B-noir. You can imagine my surprise as I found out that I was dead wrong, as it's simply a marvelous (albeit flawed) picture. There are several scenes - including the opening and closing scenes - where we simply observe Jeff controlling a train. The ever-moving background mixed with subjective shots of the rails in front makes for an unexplainably unsettling atmosphere. Nothing big ever happens in those scenes, but they give us time to get to know Jeff or try to understand his deeper psychology given the information up until that point in the film. The final scene is especially effective, considering that Jeff seemed to reconsider his earlier position on his and Vicky's relationship, and considering that it directly follows another scene that reveals that his hope is doomed: Vicky has been murdered, but Jeff does not know that yet, and the fact that Lang ends the film on that open-ended noted reinforces his ability to tell compelling stories. HUMAN DESIRE is at its best when something is happening: people hiding behind doors, a wife secretly observing where her husband has hidden certain money or a murder taking place behind a passing train until we learn that it did not happen. The film is at its worst when there are long, overdramatic dialogue scenes where the real character drama unfolds. But "worst" in this film is by no means bad, at it's a very watchable and entertaining film noir.
Great Underrated Noir Drama
I watched this for Glenn Ford, whom I am really learning to appreciate the more I watch from him. He was truly one of the great actors. Otherwise, I didn't expect much but boy this movie is excellent from beginning to end! The acting and direction are so incredibly beautiful - take for instance a courtroom case early on in the film. Instead of showing the courtroom scene as you would expect from most other films of the time, the focus is on the preparation of the case and then the film cuts to the verdict. The preparation is haunting in of itself, the man we side with has accidentally killed another man, and his lawyer and prosecutor are discussing the case. The prosecutor believes in the man's innocence but thinks that he has to do his job. The lawyer is a really bad one with little experience and rejects all advice from the prosecutor. The cut to the guilty verdict lays out how pointlessly hopeless this case is and thus gains our sympathy for the man. That is really economic storytelling.
Throughout most of the film, the filmmakers portray excellent control of the camera - sharp cinematography, clear camera movement, and amazing montages. I can't put in words how much awe I was during a montage showing the prisoners walking back to their cells, focusing on the movement of their feet and cutting forward in time, always matching the movement. Equally, a quick montage showing the protagonist serving several years of his sentence is just as horrifying as its content would suggest. Finally - and this was the moment this film's genius truly struck me - the scene where Joe meets his former prosecutor again (who is now the new warden) honestly put me in tears. Everything is so believable and Ford is so unbelievably phenomenal in this role. We really want him to be more enthusiastic about his future, but he just isn't, which convincingly communicates the film's message. Even more depressing is a similar scene later on in the film where the warden asks him who murdered one of the convicts - and Joe won't tell, not only because of the fear of being the next target of the criminal mob in prison but also because the folks in prison are the only people he is befriended with. The movie is a true nightmare at times, and I mean that in the best way possible (cinematically).
Orlacs Hände (1924)
Iconic Expressionist Film with Slow Pacing
THE HANDS OF ORLAC is the third and final collaboration between director Robert Weine and actor Conrad Veidt, and while it is by no means as important an artifact of German Expressionism as the infamous CALIGARI, it is nevertheless an iconic contribution to the film style. The narrative follows a great pianist by the name of Orlac who, in an unfortunate train crash, has been badly injured. Though he could stay alive, his hands could not survive. Orlac's wife knows that "his hands are his life", and therefore pleads to the doctor that he should do something to "save his hands".
And indeed, the doctor finds a way: He operates the hands of a recently executed man onto his arms. As the film deals with the idea of hand transplants, it could be classified as science fiction, as that is not a real-life operation (at least not until the late 90s). In line with the idea of German Expressionism, the film does not handle the unrealistic as such and makes it seem as part of everyday human life: None of the large characters - neither Orlac, nor his wife, nor the Police - show any level of disbelief regarding the validity of the operation. While Orlac's wife is now overjoyed about the successful results and anxiously awaits him to return home from the hospital, the nightmare is just beginning for Orlac: He finds a note explaining that it was an executed murderer's hands that have replaced his. During an iconic double exposure nightmare scene Wiene uses compelling visuals to portray the mental state of Orlac, the start of his slow progression into insanity. The next twenty minutes are devoted to showing how Orlac gets more and more obsessed with the idea that he now has a murderer's hands until he even returns to the doctor in the hope that the hands can be removed.
The doctor's answer is "Not the hands rule the person... the head and the heart lead the body, also the hands..." It turns out that this crucial statement is the key to the entire film and what it is trying to say. The film is about how a thought can control and mislead us.
German Expressionism, at its core, is about the emotional and psychological internalisation of the exterior - harsh angles, expressionistic sets, and extreme acting all translate into equally harsh, expressionistic, and extreme emotions for the characters. In contrast, the central theme of this movie is about the externalisation of the character's interior - it is purely Orlac's thought that prevents him from being happy with his new hands. This juxtaposition of style and content makes for a fascinating implementation of the German Expressionistic film style.
Though THE HANDS OF ORLAC is thematically and structurally compelling, the painstakingly microscopic pacing severely harms the viewing experience, especially on rewatch, where the viewer is already familiar with the material. Undoubtedly there are plenty of scenes where Wiene was trying to use the slow nature of the proceedings to generate a sense of tension, but that experiment has not fully aged well.
Westfront 1918: Vier von der Infanterie (1930)
Better than ALL QUIET
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT pales in comparison to this. That is for several reasons: the characters feel more natural in WESTFRON 1918, without clunkily forced character development; the overall preachiness under which ALL QUIET severely suffers is almost completely removed here (there were only two or three instances where I wished the characters had left what they wanted to say unsaid, especially given that what they are thinking is almost always completely clear anyway, e.g. When Karl's wife asks him "Why don't you make peace over there!?"); but most importantly, ALL QUIET seeks to generate drama via bad things happening right now, while WESTFRONT generates drama via the constant threat of bad things happening. There are plenty cheer-up scenes in this: characters playing cards, romancing or watching little vaudeville musical performances. One of my favourite scenes is actually such a performance, where Pabst just keeps the focus on the cheerful music for several minutes. Counterintuitively, it is totally tragic, because we all know that this is only temporary escapism for the characters. Pabst highlights this by having the rhythm of the music fade into soldiers marching in the next scene - an incredible use of sound and a smart rhyming pattern. The scenes with Karl on leave are a complete tour de force in dramatic filmmaking, completely groundbreaking, especially when viewed in comparison with the home scenes in ALL QUIET.
During the war scenes, I was scared several times that the actors would do the kinda clunky "getting shot, standing stiff for a second and then falling dead on the ground" routine. But they usually do something interesting on top of that, for instance when a character puts his hand on his neck in complete shock (=the moment I got scared that this stiff acting routine would happen) to then remove the hand several seconds later, completely covered in blood, looking at it and saying "Achso" ("I see"). So incredibly scary on multiple levels. The final battle is a micro-masterpiece of its own: the camera does not follow the characters or involve itself in the battle as you would expect from any other war movie (including ALL QUIET), but remains mostly stationary. There are several long takes of the battle happening. From one singular perspective. One take, in particular, remains on screen for seemingly minutes without end. I cannot think of a more effective way to highlight the sheer mess at the front, as there is no attempt to keep a particular character or action on screen.
...and then come the final ten minutes which are... not that great. The battle ends with the aforementioned stiff "I'm dying" acting. Some of the characters go mad (I can see that happening, but it goes against the nature of the rest of the battle sequence, which does not explicitly externalise the thought process of any individual character - quite the opposite). And then the actors go to hospital, with somewhat clumsy dialogue/monologue e.g. Where one character shouts "I've lost my legs!" The final flashback of Karl thinking about his wife is not only unnecessary but counterproductive. I know the situation his wife is in and what she said, and his death will therefore naturally strike me as doubly melancholic due to my memory of her final goodbye to him earlier. This way, it feels like Pabst is telling me to feel bad, which happens so obviously that it actually drains all potential emotion. Furthermore, if this flashback had not existed, we would feel the loss off the wife even more tragically, as there would be no connection between the characters in the direction again for a minute or so.
It seems to me as Pabst should have best crossed out the odd preachy line here and there, but hey compare that to ALL QUIET where they should have crossed out basically 1/3 of the screenplay. Overall, a very, very strong war movie - one that could be considered even greater than the likes of PATHS OF GLORY or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.
Ball of Fire (1941)
Timeless Screwball Masterpiece
Howard Hawks was a master of the cinematic art form and such a great director, whose reputation is partly not as sky-high as it should be because he never clearly committed to one specific genre or film style, meaning that it's hard to see "Hawks" in his movies (the same way you see e.g. "Hitchcock" in his films or "Kubrick" in his.) Nevertheless, Hawks was excellent in whatever genre he touched, whether it was the American western, film noir, the early gangster film, or the screwball comedy, as is the case with BALL OF FIRE. But it is not only Hawks' brilliant direction that makes this a timeless classic: The phenomenal cast, the great Toland cinematography and of course, the sharp and intelligent Wilder script are very much at the forefront as well. This is the second time I watched this film and was while doing so completely enamored by its every twist and turn, whether it was the generally comedic dialogue, Stanwick's musical interlude, the gangster/thriller aspects of this film, or the romance which includes the tragic dramatic chapter near the end. I swoon for everything here... except for the ending. What was only a gut instinct criticism on my first viewing turned out to be true and quite genuinely this film's only real "flaw", if you so will. After the film's dramatic and intense conclusion has been reached, there is still a five-or-so minute payload of "wrapping things up", and I would have quite frankly preferred a short and snappy ending (like in e.g. NORTH BY NORTHWEST). Not that this ending is poor cinema or even a major flaw. No, it's still very sophisticated stuff, but it just about seems to break the beautiful flow this film had up until then ever so slightly.
Die Bergkatze (1921)
Silly But Charming
THE WILDCAT is another silly movie by Ernst Lubitsch, and I wasn't expecting that I would like it that much, considering some of his other silly silent movies are too odd for my taste - and the first act of this one admittedly had me further confirming my prejudices, as I was continuing to expect an awful end result. But THE WILDCAT is actually pretty sweet, it had nice landscapes, had me chuckle many times and it is above all nice and silly.
Novello and Hitchcock just work!
Downhill is Hitchcock's fourth feature film and the first one in his filmography that uses the wrongly accused man as a storytelling device to gain sympathy from the audience. Downhill is another collaboration between lead actor Ivor Novello and director Alfred Hitchcock - the first one being The Lodger, a true masterpiece - and it would be so great if there were any more. Both films acted as great visual storytelling exercises for Hitchcock, where barely any of the dialogue was actually shown via title cards.
The movie consistently delivers interesting moments from the dramatic accusation scene at the headmaster's office to the heartbreaking dream sequences towards the end. Even the ending, which many find unfitting in the rest of the story had me emotionally involved. Though the film drags at times (not because there are too many scenes per se but rather because most scenes are drawn out for too long), Ivor Novello is still such a great actor and an identifiable lead that he more or less saves the movie from ever being boring.
The following scene clearly stood out to me: coming right after the escalator shot, which indicates that Roddy is about to ruin himself, starts out with a closeup of him in white tie. We are now of the belief that he might have been lucky after all - until the camera pans back to reveal that he is actually just a waiter. As the camera turns a little, we now see that he is part of a stage play - maybe there is hope again, maybe the waiter in the production is one of the main characters, therefore implying he became a famous actor. That is another dream shattered when a musical sequence starts with him being the least important extra right at the back of the stage. Hitchcock clearly didn't master the scene yet, but one can see the blueprints of a masterful scene which is executed relatively nicely.
On the other hand, a scene of Roddy and two of his friends dancing in the Olde Bunne Shop has been criticised by film critic Paul Duncan:
The only possible suspense at this point would have to come from the audience wondering to what turn of events will all this plodding exposition lead. Of course, even viewers who had not seen Novello as Roddy in the previous year's stage play were likely aware of the fateful aftermath of this dalliance.
However, I felt differently about this scene, as I was never bored - it never occurred to me that this should be a suspense sequence; rather I looked at it as Hitchcock experimenting with transcendental cinema.
Downhill is no masterpiece, but it has some excellent cinematography, some great direction and a great lead actor. For all those reasons Downhill is definitely an essential Hitchcock for fans.
Shooting Stars (1928)
Obscure yet Amazing Gem
After revisiting this film it became clear to me what a great gem it is. And it is definitely too obscure, much more people should know this film.
The three main characters are well-acted, the directing is phenomenal, the pacing is admittedly somewhat questionable here and there, but all in all, it was very enjoyable.
The film follows actress Mae Feather, who lives a life of publicity, though most of her public image is acting too as can be seen in an interview she gives in the beginning. She is married to a guy named Julian, who also works on the film she currently acts in
One shot during the start stands out - a tracking shot beginning at a man working on the set light, then moving to a Mae, following her from her film set, which is being wrapped up at that very moment, up the stairs to another film shot parallel in the same studios. This introduces us to the third part of the love triangle - Andy Wilks an actor in that other film.
This is not just a classic love triangle story though, this is an absolutely intense ride from comedy, suspense, drama and tragedy. Two scenes, in particular, are very suspenseful, I am sure Alfred Hitchcock was inspired by this to further develop his suspense technique (though Anthony Asquith definitely also used Hitchcock's The Lodger from a year earlier as influence to create suspense in this film).
The lighting in this film is phenomenal; the number of scenes that amazed me because they aren't lit with normal ceiling light, but rather by table lamps spread throughout the room, therefore creating depth in the image is immense.
Several artistic touches also stand out, such as words edited into the images to symbolise a radio report, or creative intertitles during a scene in a film shown in the cinemas (in the plot of Shooting Stars).
Yes, this film is absolutely about films, similar to Singing in the Rain, Sunset Boulevard, 8 1/2, and one of my personal favourites: The Last Command. Shooting Stars also demonstrates filmmaking, some parts are almost documentary like. And Shooting Stars absolutely deserves to be a part of that list, as it is in of itself a master class film.
Anyway, the main flaw in this film is the pacing, as some parts towards the beginning and towards the very end are somewhat dragging (though the final conclusion is very well made).
Definitely check this film out, it is such an underrated film that deserves to be a classic.
--- SPOILERS FROM HERE ON ---
This film is a masterclass in symbolic filmmaking, foreshadowing, suspense and a perfect depiction of a ruined life.
When Mae Feather and Andy Smith start having their affair, you can see the blinking text: "Mae Feather in My Man" in the background in the cinemas. At that very same moment, one can see Julian watching the very film. In it, we can see how Mae is saved from an evil count by Julian, and the film has a happy ending. This shows how Julian's and Mae's relationship is to the public, and how it should be. The blinking sign, which can be seen through Mae's window constantly watches Andy and Mae, therefore symbolically also reminding the viewer of the third part of the love triangle.
Mae then gives Andy her key (also a visually impressive scene, only the hands of the two people are in the frame and the background shows parts of the elevator, while she gives him the key, the elevator comes up to their floor and opens, therefore visually reminding the viewer of her departure from Andy, whilst the key visually tells the viewer that they will meet in the future.) She says that her husband won't be home the next evening. Then, the next day, Andy plays a man in his film, who is also given a key from a woman (in fact, Mae's key is used as a prop), however the husband overhears the conversation and begins shooting Andy's character. During the shooting, Andy's stunt double is tragically injured, and reporters temporarily mistake him for Andy himself.
This scene is just full of foreshadowing: the husband will find out, and Andy will die.
Then three very suspenseful scenes follow, Julian is not out that evening, which encourages Mae to play loud music in order to overshadow the noise of Andy's entrance - her efforts for doing this are however stopped after the radio (falsely) reports of his death. This leads to Julian finding out. The next scene is on the film set again. In a film scene, Julian's character is to be shot. Mae, in an effort to get rid of him, puts a real bullet into the firearm. The next part is just pure suspense. During the shooting, there is even a slow-motion shot of the bullet travelling through the air - not something that I would expect from a film of the 1920s.
However, it turns out that, as there are multiple bullets in the firearm, the real bullet hasn't been fired yet. And just as it has to come: Andy gets shot with that one. Yet another very suspenseful scene, seeing Andy sitting on a chandelier and then falling all the way into the dark corners of the film studio - figuratively moving him from the height of his fame to the darkest parts of death. When Julian finds out about the incident, he figures out Mae's plan, and she then faints. This entire sequence has many interesting cinematic touches, such as the shadow of the chandelier still moving through the image after Andy fell down, over shocked people reacting to the incident. Or the camera movement towards Julian resulting in a closeup for added tension.
Unfortunately, the final 10 minutes drag a little, though they are still very well made: Mae Feather now lives in complete obscurity, whilst Julian is a film director. When by chance she is chosen as an extra for one of his films, she cries, as she remembers the time when she was a famous film star. The lights for the set are turned out one by one, putting her into darkness. She is the last person to leave the room (apart from the director) and just before that asks Andy: "Do you want me anymore?" A sentence that is of course loaded with emotion due to its multiple meanings. He doesn't even look at her and just shakes his head - he didn't even recognise her. The final shot sees her leaving the set, slowly becoming smaller and smaller in the frame filled with props, lights etc. She is now figuratively leaving her life of films behind completely. When she enters the doorway leading out of the room - now a tiny silhouette in the massive screen filled with camera equipment, one can just about see her looking back into the room. One last glance at her lost career, one last glance at her lost husband, one last glance at - figuratively - her lost love, and then she exits the screen, leaving only the studio in sight.
That Uncertain Feeling (1941)
Not A Lesser Lubitsch
That Uncertain Feeling is a less popular but nevertheless very interesting Ernst Lubitsch film. Like so many of his other works (e.g. The Love Parade, One Hour With You, The Smiling Lieutenant) it shows an unhappily married couple's path back to a healthy relationship. Since one can guess the outcome right from the start, the movie is not engaging because one would speculate the outcome throughout the runtime but rather because Lubitsch makes the most boring plot engaging and interesting - and he manages to do it over and over again with the same plot. That is the reason why "The Lubitsch Touch" is now common vocabulary among film scholars. That Uncertain Feeling certainly doesn't lack those nice moments, either, see for instance (spoilers) Lubitsches delightful buildup to the "keeks" moment. This movie is no lesser Lubitsch film, in fact I believe it is one of his better works. Most of the negative ratings of this film will probably be down to relatively poor production quality.
Tôkyô monogatari (1953)
One of Cinema's Greatest Achievements
This is one of cinema's greatest achievements, as was shown when it topped the sight and sound directors poll of best movies of all time.
The tatami-mat shot was beautifully used here to create structure in the movie, just like how there is a structure in human life: it is always too short and you will regret not having spent more time with your loved ones when it's too late.
The conflicts between the generations are shown in such a poetic way: notice for example how, when grandma wants to talk to her grandson about his future, he doesn't bother answering whatsoever. His interest lies in some other place. This is further shown as there is a train framed right behind him, which is a metaphor for the change in society over generations.
Notice also how the factory chimneys first emit white smoke to show that everyone is happy and later black smoke to foreshadow grandmas death. What is even more heartbreaking is that the entire family sits around the table happily together after grandma's death, something that didn't happen before - and that is only staged.
And this film goes much deeper than just purely illustrating the message that in life you should be grateful and kind to your loved ones - it also touches on other themes, such as fear of being a burden to others, disappointment, guilt and selfishness. The selfish think that other people are selfish, and those who aren't selfish think that they are.
I believe this is one of the best movies of all time and therefore can highly recommend it.
This movie simply becomes increasingly greater over time, as can be seen in the Sight and Sound critics poll, where its rank increased over the decades until it topped the poll - an achievment that only two other movies ever could do: Bycicle Thieves and Citizen Kane.
After a second time viewing, it is easy to see why. Hitchcock visually describes the different feelings and motivations of the characters so perfectly, so that it is difficult not to understand what the characters are thinking in a scene.
This can be seen late in the movie when Scottie and Judy are having dinner at Ernies. In the background, one can see a slightly blurry image of a blond in a grey suit - this combined with the red background reminds the viewer on the first time Scottie met Madeline. Since this is shown in a subjective shot of Scottie, we know exactly what he is thinking: I wish Judy were Madeline. Judy realizes that he is looking behind her and also spots the woman. We can see how she is disapointed. And we know why: She pretended to be Madeline, so we know that she knows what scottie is thinking. This scene is completely told without dialouge, only visuals.
Another amazing moment in the film is when Judy has her flashback just after Scottie met her for the first time. Just before the flashback, she looks dead-straight into the camera. The director therefore visually demonstrates that she wants to confess something to the audience.
Scottie's famous dream sequence is great to watch out of context, but absolutely haunting if you watched the movie up to then.
The creative use of color, framing and camera angles make for an overall amazing expirience; a movie that every film lover has to watch sometime thoughout his life!
M - Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (1931)
One of the best Films ever Made
M is a very important part in film history and hat contributed many elements to it that we know and love today. (most famously the use of sound for uses other than boring dialouge).
We are lucky that Fritz Lang made this one when he did: Just when the sound era started, where there was sound, but often times no score. I believe it really helps the Masterpiece that it doesn't have any music.
I also really enjoy the sequences of, what Hitchcock liked to call "pure cinema". Lang sometimes just had silent shots in the film.
Also, Peter Lorres acting is phenomenal.