Peter Hoskin and Matthew d’Ancona count down the first 25 of The Spectator’s 50 Essential Films
The studio logo fades. The opening credits roll. And so we come to the main feature: The Spectator’s 50 Essential Films — a selection of the very best that cinema has to offer, and all in glorious Technicolor.
This isn’t just a celebration of motion pictures — though it’s certainly that — but also a testament to The Spectator’s own passion for the medium. I’m certain that our offices on Old Queen Street contain a greater per capita proportion of film fans — crazed, honest-to-God, bleary-eyed film fans — than pretty much any other building in all London. And that gets reflected in a magazine which pays due attention and respect to the silver screen. Graham Greene, Basil Wright, Peter Ackroyd, Hilary Mantel and now the inimitable Deborah Ross have ranked among our cinema critics. And we’re lucky to have frequent written contributions from the glamorous end of the film industry.
We’ve been guided by this wider legacy, as much as by our present deliberations, in choosing the final 50 films. A premium has been placed on wit, Britishness and — above all — intelligence; not to skew the final selection, you understand, but to distinguish this effort from other film lists out there. And, of course, it wouldn’t really be a Spectator product without a healthy dash of contrariness.
As a result, there are some notable absentees from our list, as well as a few less familiar entries. I won’t spoil the suspense of what’s to come, except to say that you won’t find Casablanca (1942), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or Lawrence of Arabia (1962) anywhere among these pages. And I’m sad that some of my personal favourites — Canyon Passage (1946), Track of the Cat (1954), Bigger than Life (1956), O Lucky Man! (1973) and any of about 20 John Ford films — haven’t made the cut either. Their absence is lamented, though we remain unapologetic. After all, the 50 films that we’re left with are a distinguished bunch: high points in modern cultural history, and essential viewing for Spectator readers.
In the end, we hope that we’ve captured something of the breadth, mystery, intelligence and — yes — magic of the movies. As Jean-Luc Godard so rightly put it: ‘Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.’ Now it’s time to be deceived — and gladly.
Out of the Past
(Jacques Tourneur, 1947)
The archetypal film noir: a compelling mix of shadow and light. Our protagonist, Jeff Bailey (Robert Mitchum), starts off bathed in sunshine. He runs a garage in Nowheresville USA, and is going steady with the lovely Ann (Virginia Huston). So far, so sedate. But inevitably, irresistibly, the darkness of Jeff’s past seeps into the frame.
There’s one rule in this hardboiled world: a guy just can’t move on. Jeff may have left his past as a private eye behind, but Kirk Douglas’s gangster and Jane Greer’s femme fatale — the ghosts of San Francisco and Mexico — aren’t prepared to let him go. As soon as they reappear on the scene, the film becomes an intricate chemistry experiment: what happens when the present and the past, light and dark, combine? The doomed quality that Mitchum brings to all his performances hints at an answer. All roads lead to the grave.
Director Jacques Tourneur handles the elements expertly, striking a similar tone to his psychological horror pictures Cat People (1942) and Night of the Demon (1957). There’s shadow, there’s light, but the balance between them is determined by forces beyond our control or understanding; forces which could just as easily destroy us as leave us be. Yes, in the end, we’re all helpless. PH
(Woody Allen, 1979)
The second instalment of Woody Allen’s informal New York trilogy (Annie Hall and the Chekhovian Hannah and Her Sisters being the other two) is also the most authentic consummation of his love for the city. From the first notes of Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ to the classic final scene in which Allen’s character, Isaac Davis, smiles gently at his departing girlfriend Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), the monumental cityscape mocks the pettiness and tininess of the flawed characters who scurry, lie and fall in and out of love beneath its towers.
Indeed, the true star of the show is Gordon Willis’s black and white, Panavision aspect ratio (2.35:1) cinematography, which gives Manhattan an epic sweep matched by its soundtrack. The plot revolves around the affairs and duplicities of Isaac and his friend Yale (Michael Murphy), both of whom fall in love with Diane Keaton’s neurotic, pseudo-intellectual Mary. (Of a steel cube at an exhibition she declares: ‘To me it was very textural, if you know what I mean, it was perfectly integrated and it had a marvellous negative capability.’)
To hear Mary and Yale describe their ‘Academy of the Overrated’ (Mahler, Jung, Scott Fitzgerald, Lenny Bruce, Walt Whitman, Norman Mailer, Bergman to name but a few of its members) is to hear the voice of the heartless intelligentsia at its most horribly smug. Isaac veers haplessly between this empty world and the simple, honest love offered by Tracy. In the end, scarred herself by Isaac’s infidelity, it is Tracy who offers the film’s concluding line — and its only resilient truth: ‘Everybody gets corrupted. You have to have a little faith in people.’ Md’A
(Steven Spielberg, 1975)
It’s hard to know how Steven Spielberg did it. On the surface, this is simple B-movie fare: Shark Attack at Amity Island! And, under the surface… well, it’s still not much more than a plastic shark biting through wood and flesh for our entertainment. But, somehow, there’s a soul and purpose to this movie that sets it apart from the pack. If only all the blockbusters that Jaws birthed lived up to their forebear: the ultimate summer popcorn flick.
Maybe it’s how Jaws evokes time, place and public mood just as successfully as, say, Fritz Lang’s M (1931) or Elia Kazan’s Panic in the Streets (1950). Maybe it’s the suspense of the unseen beast, swimming to the sound of John Williams’s famous score. Maybe it’s that one haunting scene when the fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) recalls the grim tragedy of the USS Indianapolis. Or maybe it’s those moments when a shooting star flashes above the heroes’ boat, reminding you of the film’s essential, but heroic, simplicity: small men, drifting through the cosmos, trying to survive.
In the end, all of these components go together so naturally that you can’t tell whether Spielberg is following the Hollywood rulebook to the letter, rewriting it, or ripping the whole thing to pieces. Either way, this is muscular cinema. PH
(Leo McCarey, 1933)
The only thing you really need to know about the Marx brothers’ masterpiece is that Woody Allen’s character in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), drenched in existential angst, decides not to kill himself after wandering into a movie house and watching Duck Soup’s spectacular musical number, ‘The Country’s Going to War’. ‘What if the worst were true,’ muses Allen. ‘There’s no God, you only go around once, and that’s it? Well, don’t you want to be part of the experience?’
How could we not? Dignitas would go out of business if every potential customer were forced to watch Duck Soup before his or her appointment. A carnival of joyous humanity staged even as dark clouds gathered once more over Europe, the film combines an anarchic plot (Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, unlikely leader of the small state of Freedonia), comic routines of absolute precision that have their roots in vaudeville (especially the legendary mirror scene in which Harpo pretends to be Groucho’s reflection), and often risqué wordplay and badinage that reflect the brothers’ debt to quick-fire Yiddish comedy.
But it is the movie’s sheer, undefinable joie de vivre and exuberance that have ensured its survival in the canon of timeless cinema. ‘I could dance with you until the cows come home,’ says Groucho to Margaret Dumont. ‘On second thought, I’d rather dance with the cows till you come home.’ And: ‘I’ve got a good mind to ring his doorbell and run.’ And: ‘Oh, your Excellency!’ Then: ‘You’re not so bad yourself!’
Who could not love such a character and such a movie? Groucho believed that his films would date quickly and be forgotten. On this occasion, for once, Rufus T. Firefly was completely and utterly wrong. Md’A
Rome, Open City
(Roberto Rossellini, 1945)
How can cinema deal with the psychic shock, the bare horror, of the second world war? Roberto Rossellini’s approach was, largely, to be honest; to take his camera out into the ruins of postwar Rome, and pay quiet tribute to those Italians who resisted the Nazi occupation of their country. The result was Rome, Open City: a groundbreaking brand of non-fiction fiction, which made free use of nonprofessional actors, real locations and natural lighting. And, even though the film sometimes slips from authenticity into melodrama, the genuine trauma of a city and its people is — at all times — plain to see.
Nowadays, Rome, Open City is celebrated for the neorealist movement and films it is said to have sired: from Rossellini’s own Paisà (1946) and Germany Year Zero (1948), through to De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966). Yet it stands on its own: a high point of cinematic humanism, both humble and humbling. PH
(David Lean, 1946)
In many respects, this 1940s British classic plays like a Universal Horror film minus Karloff or Lugosi. And, trust me, that’s not meant as a slight. After all, Charles Dickens’s source novel is as much a mood-piece as anything else; a thing of fantasy and of dread. This adaptation captures that tone perfectly.
It begins in a graveyard — where else? — with a chance meeting between our young hero, Pip, and the convict Abel Magwitch. The heavy sky, angular gravestones and contorted trees all evoke the opening of James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931). And this aesthetic seeps through the whole film, as we journey from Miss Havisham’s dilapidated mansion — which matches Dracula’s castle cobweb for cobweb — to the dank, dungeon-like prisons of Victorian London.
But it’s more than a matter of production design. Like the greatest horror movies, there’s a constant sense that unknown, supernatural forces are pulling all the strings. If there aren’t evil demons lurking off camera, why else the grim irony of Miss Havisham burning to death in her wedding dress? Why else the inevitability of Magwitch’s final confrontation with his nemesis? If this is some kind of cosmic joke, then it sure as hell isn’t a funny one.
Yet there’s always hope. David Lean fashions a happier ending than Dickens could bear, so we feel there are angels operating on our behalf, fighting in the shadows against those twilight demons. A year after the end of the second world war, this struggle must have had particular resonance. It still resonates now. PH
(Hamilton Luske + Ben Sharpsteen, 1940)
I doubt he thought it himself, but Uncle Walt was always at his best when peddling nightmares. A case in point: his studio’s 1940 feature Pinocchio. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a study in sadism, as the titular puppet — alive but unhuman — is subjected to one biblical ordeal after another. His nose grows when he lies; he’s bullied, beaten and kidnapped; and he even gets turned part-way into a donkey. This essential nastiness inspires some special work from Disney’s team of artists. The sequence in which Monstro the whale devours Pinocchio, before losing his prey, is among the most thrilling and imaginative in animation history: all crash, thrash and violence.
In the end, though, the puppet gets his wish upon a star, and is turned into a real, flesh-and-blood human boy. After all the horror, isn’t that a happy ending to set children’s minds at rest? Sure, if you like. But to my young mind it opened up a grim prospect: that the reverse could happen, that a boy could turn just as easily into wood and screws. Like I said, the stuff of nightmares. PH
(Federico Fellini, 1963)
Self-indulgent to the point of parody, Fellini’s ‘eight-and-a-halfth’ feature is a cavalcade of autobiographical neurosis, a dazzling montage of playfulness at the border between art and reality. The biggest joke is that one of the most imaginative films ever made should be all about director’s block, seen through the weary eyes of Marcello Mastroianni’s Guido, Fellini’s screen alter ego.
‘Such a monstrous presumption to think that others could benefit from the squalid catalogue of your mistakes,’ says the critic Daumier to Guido, as if in anticipation of the reception 81/2 would inspire in real life. ‘And how do you benefit from stringing together the tattered pieces of your life? Your vague memories, the faces of people that you were never able to love…’ But the movie contains the answer to its own internal criticisms in some of the most memorable scenes in all cinema — the traffic-jam dream sequence, the imaginary farmhouse in which all the women in Guido’s life cohabit, the circus parade finale which is as extraordinary as the last shot of the knight’s entourage dancing hand in hand with Death in The Seventh Seal.
Truffaut’s Day for Night, Greenaway’s 81/2 Women, Fosse’s All That Jazz, Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories: so many films pay explicit homage to this masterpiece. Yet it is best seen not as a sombre monument, but as a very Italian shrug of the artist’s shoulders at the simultaneous magic and absurdity of movie-making. Md’A
(Preston Sturges, 1941)
Dedicated to ‘the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little’, Sullivan’s Travels is a movie about the redeeming power of laughter. But do not be deterred: this is not a pious film. In the hands of Preston Sturges, the master of screwball, even the most homespun message is delivered with thrilling cynicism and dark wit.
John L. Sullivan (Joel McCrea) is a successful director who — having churned out escapist hits — wants to make a social-realist film called O Brother, Where Art Thou (the inspiration for the Coen brothers’ movie of the same name, and the lofty ideals of the lead character in the Coens’ own Hollywood fable, Barton Fink). Taking to the road as a hobo — a cinematic version of Marie Antoinette playing shepherdess — Sullivan teams up with Veronica Lake (credited only as ‘The Girl’) and, after many hijinks, ends up sentenced to hard labour. There, in one of cinema’s most vivid scenes (honoured by Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters) he sees his fellow prisoners deriving unalloyed joy from Walt Disney’s Playful Pluto.
So much for social realism, then. We are reminded of the servant who warned Sullivan at the start of his pilgrimage: ‘The poor know all about poverty and only the morbid rich would find the topic glamorous.’ Indeed; and the US government’s Office of Censorship was not impressed either, declining to approve the film for export during wartime because of the potential anti-American propaganda use of its chain-gang scenes. The New Yorker hated Sullivan’s Travels. Only in recent decades has it been recognised as one of Sturges’s best: in our view, the best. Md’A
In the Mood for Love
(Wong Kar-wai, 2000)
The paradox at the heart of Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love is that the simplest tale of all — a man and a woman falling in love — is also the most complex. Indeed, when love blossoms between Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) and So Lai-zhen (Maggie Cheung), a vicious array of expectations, pressures and constraints means that their passion remains unfulfilled. Instead, they have to make do with brief encounters on the stairs of their shared apartment block, or stolen glances across the void of a room. In the absence of a full-blown affair, even the smallest action — a drag on a cigarette, a touch of fingertips — takes on a new meaning and significance. Everything is suggestive, everything is fetishised, everything, in short, is complicated — making for cinema’s most incisive and tragic portrait of unsatisfied desire. PH
Kind Hearts and Coronets
(Robert Hamer, 1949)
Class war was ne’er so macabre, nor so funny, as in Kind Hearts and Coronets. Here we have a middle-class gentleman, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price), trying to raise himself from ‘poverty’ (a fine terraced house in south-west London, actually) by killing every single distant relation who stands between him and the D’Ascoyne dukedom. As befits an Ealing picture, he does so with comic aplomb — poisoning, blowing-up and shooting arrows at his aristocratic rivals — and with impeccable manners. I imagine de Quincey would be thrilled: Mazzini really has got murder down to a fine art.
The great gag is that we will this killer on, from one vicious crime to the next. After all, as a unit, the D’Ascoynes are a pretty loathsome bunch. They issue the ‘curtest possible refusal’ to the dying wish of Mazzini’s mother to be buried in the family vault, and similarly inform him that they are ‘not aware of his existence as a member of the D’Ascoyne family’. So while Alec Guinness’s virtuoso performance as eight separate members of the family is obscenely enjoyable, their demises may be even more so.
Watching Kind Hearts and Coronets now, it feels oddly like a fulcrum for our national cinema. Hamer’s film is the demented flipside to the socially conscious documentaries made during the 1930s and 1940s; an inversion of the ever-popular period drama; a predecessor to the lurid fantasy of Hammer Horror; and a spiritual forebear to films such as Lindsay Anderson’s Britannia Hospital (1982) and Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989). Yes, so far as our cinematic heritage is concerned: this is Britain. PH
(Quentin Tarantino, 1994)
Tarantino vies with Truffaut, Godard and Bogdanovich for the title of greatest cineaste-turned-director, except that Tarantino is really a fan rather than a critic. His cinema is the cinema of joyous plagiarism rather than deeply cerebral homage: and never more so than in the miracle of a movie that won him the Palme d’Or at Cannes and proved that the geek really could inherit the earth.
Pulp Fiction is a film about gangsters, dopeheads and petty thieves directed by a hyperactive and very brilliant jackdaw. Everything is stolen, ripped off, rejigged, modified: Tarantino is not so much a director as a cinematic fence, selling us stolen goods with that fabulously wicked smile. Even the cast is fleeced: when John Travolta (as Vincent Vega, heroin addict and hitman) dances with Uma Thurman (Mia, wife of Vincent’s boss, Marsellus Wallace) he is sending up his earlier Grease and Saturday Night Fever self. When, a scene or two later, Vincent plunges an adrenaline shot into Mia’s chest to save her from death by drug overdose, it’s a straight lift from the 1978 Scorsese documentary American Boy. When Vincent’s partner, Jules, recites Ezekiel 25:17 to his next victim, Tarantino is doing a smash’n’grab on a couple of Sonny Chiba martial arts movies. When Marsellus and Bruce Willis’s over-the-hill boxer, Butch, are trapped and sexually humiliated by a couple of rednecks, we’re on the set of Deliverance. And when… well, you get the idea.
Playing with timelines in this three-part movie, Tarantino showed that the stunning dialogue in Reservoir Dogs was not just a flash in the pan. Violent? God, yes. But so, so much more. Pulp Fiction is, believe it or not, a movie with a message. And the message is: aren’t movies cool? Md’A
The 400 Blows
(François Truffaut, 1959)
Mark the date. It’s fifty years since the success of The 400 Blows at Cannes announced La Nouvelle Vague to the world: raw, iconoclastic and utterly essential. But, for all its trailblazing pomp, the most remarkable thing about François Truffaut’s debut feature is its gentleness. Thanks in part to the 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud’s mature lead performance as Antoine Doinel — and also to Truffaut’s eye for the poignant and humorous — there’s nothing forced or sensational about this tale of juvenile delinquency, however far it reaches into the New Wave bag of tricks. In the end, this is what gives The 400 Blows — and Antoine’s ultimate flight to freedom — its unique power. No two-fingered salute at the establishment but, rather, a statement of being. As natural as breathing. PH
(Martin Scorsese, 1976)
Why does Travis (Robert De Niro) want to shoot the presidential candidate, Senator Palantine? Why does he take Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) to a porn movie on their first and only date? Why does he so badly want to save the teen prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster)?
Ask yourself such questions about the movie that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1976 and you might end up almost as crazed and baffled as Travis Bickle, the unhinged cabby at the heart of Scorsese’s greatest movie. Inspired by the rescue theme of The Searchers, the violence of Peckinpah, the tackiness of blaxploitation movies, and literary sources ranging from Thomas Wolfe’s ‘God’s Lonely Man’ to Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, the director and the screenplay writer Paul Schrader refused to be swayed by any logic other than the movie’s own internal version. Travis is who he is: we can deal with it, or take a hike.
‘The days go on and on… they don’t end,’ he says (to whom?). ‘All my life needed was a sense of someplace to go. I don’t believe that one should devote his life to morbid self-attention, I believe that one should become a person like other people.’ Thus does a Vietnam veteran, alienated to the point of non-existence, drive his cab through the Dantean inferno of 1970s New York looking for a mission and a purpose. Trying to save both Betsy and Iris, he courts lunacy, chooses violence, and — in the movie’s most savage twist — discovers a form of bogus celebrity in the process. Never have sticky discomfort and solitariness been so brilliantly evoked on screen, thanks in large measure to Bernard Herrmann’s fabulous score. A waking nightmare without compare in modern cinema. Md’A
(Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966)
So hostile were the Soviet authorities to this three-and-a-half-hour meditation on art and religion that it was not screened at Cannes until 1969 — out of the main competition, and at four o’clock in the morning. In spite of that, it still won the International Critics Prize.
That such a film was made at all in the permafrost of the Cold War is miraculous enough, but Andrei Rublev is much more than a dissident masterpiece. For a start, it is the best film ever made about the Middle Ages, plotting the life of a 15th-century icon painter swept up in the bloody feuds of rival princes and the savageries of the Tatar invasions. Tarkovsky eschews the sub-Chaucerian kitsch of most cinema notionally depicting the mediaeval era, and achieves instead a panoramic bleakness with an undercurrent of constant menace that makes for deeply unsettling viewing.
Yet the film’s greatest success is to carry off this pitiless naturalism while simultaneously staging a series of symbolic arguments about art, faith, sexuality, and moral despair. Debates that would have seemed contrived with a lesser director at the helm flow smoothly and authentically through this very human story. In this respect, at least, Tarkovsky is a more effective cinematic philosopher even than Bergman.
And he is so much more, too. Few moments in film are as unbearably tense as the moment when the boy Boriska waits to see if the bell that he has cast for the Grand Prince — with no formal knowledge of how to do so — will toll majestically. Your heart, I promise, will stop as you wait with him. Md’A
(Joseph H. Lewis, 1950)
If you’re looking for moments in cinema, then how about Peggy Cummins’s entrance in Gun Crazy? Here she comes, the sharp-shooting star of a funfair act, with twin guns blazing. A whirlwind of smoke and sin. Little wonder why the gun obsessive Bart Tare (John Dall) is smitten from the outset. The shooting competition that follows is their courtship. And it sets the tone of sex ’n’ violence which saturates the rest of the film.
Soon enough the two lovers are tearing from bank to bank à la Bonnie and Clyde. We know that she’s leading him astray, but we sure know why. After all, a film this fast-paced leads its audience astray too. It dares you to anticipate the next robbery, the next gunshot and the next death. Its point: that maybe we all have a little gun craziness inside us. PH
Killer of Sheep
(Charles Burnett, 1977)
A scratchy black-and-white independent, shot in 1977 for under $10,000, Killer of Sheep is both as sparse and as rich as it gets. It centres on a bone-tired abattoir worker, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), who shuffles like one of the living dead around a Los Angeles ghetto. The drama is as downbeat as his life. Or rather, it is his life. We voyeurs watch him sipping tea at the kitchen table, mending a broken sink, and attempting to hoist an engine into the back of a truck. So far as instant impressions are concerned, it’s all depressingly mundane.
But director Charles Burnett fashions an improbable poetry from it all. Moments of tenderness and quiet levity blossom like flowers in a nettle patch, while the soundtrack of popular songs hums in honour of the lives and actions on screen. In the end, Killer of Sheep comes down to one question: is the human condition to be celebrated or lamented? And its greatest joy is that it doesn’t provide an easy answer. PH
The Long Day Closes
(Terence Davies, 1992)
Welcome to what Terence Davies calls his ‘imagined country’: 1950s Liverpool, refracted through the memory of song fragments, half-heard conversations, acute colours and childhood pains. It’s a place which invites dewy-eyed nostalgia as much as it provokes bitterness; where community spirit and intolerance meet and reinforce one another. Despite these contradictions, and Davies’s self-confessed ‘born-again atheism’, The Long Day Closes strikes an elegiac tone which borders on the religious. The spiritual resonance of the final shot — the sun setting, as a choir performs the title hymn — matches anything in, say, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Quite simply: Davies is Britain’s foremost filmmaker alive today. PH
Singin’ in the Rain
(Stanley Donen + Gene Kelly, 1952)
What more to say about this joyous Technicolor romp? I guess the only adequate compliment you can pay Singin’ in the Rain is that it matches up to Gene Kelly’s talent. Sure, Kelly made other great pictures — just watch Anchors Aweigh (1945), The Pirate (1948) or An American in Paris (1951) to be certain of that. But wonderful though they are, they’re never quite as wonderful as that dancing and that charisma. Singin’ in the Rain, on the other hand, is.
Anyone who’s seen the title song-and-dance number won’t need convincing of Kelly’s electric charm. But there’s so, so much more here. Donald O’Connor making ’em laugh; the lovely Debbie Reynolds just about keeping pace with her co-stars; and Jean Hagen, in one of the great comedic performances, screeching ‘What’s wrong with the way I talk?’ You could watch pretty much any segment on a loop. And that goes doubly for Cyd Charisse’s cameo in the ‘Broadway Melody’ ballet sequence.
But perhaps the two biggest stars remain behind the camera, tap-tap-tapping away at their typewriters. Leaf through Adolph Green and Betty Comden’s multilayered screenplay and ye shall find. Not only is it a delicious satire of the American film industry, equal parts adoring and acidic, but it’s also a satisfying history of the advent of the talkies, as well as a movie wrapped within a movie about the movies. Make no mistake: this is a setting in which stars, like Kelly, can shine. PH
The Roaring Twenties
(Raoul Walsh, 1939)
Few films relate the tidal force of history upon men and their fortunes as successfully, or as succinctly, as The Roaring Twenties. Right from the off, it’s clear that Eddie Bartlett (James Cagney) is more a victim of circumstance than an agent of free choice. Returning to America from the trenches of Europe, he’s soon forced to become a bootlegger by the limited opportunities that await him. And his subsequent rise and fall follows the grim oscillation of the titular decade itself: a party followed by a crash. It’s this historic sweep, this grand ambition — along with Cagney’s effervescent performance — which elevates The Roaring Twenties above every other entry in the 1930s gangster film cycle. And it makes Eddie Bartlett’s final redemption all the more moving; as he finally escapes from the clutches of fate, and takes his life — and its ending — into his own hands. PH
(Fritz Lang, 1931)
A mother calls for her daughter: ‘Elsie! Elsie! Elsie!’ A plate and cup lie unattended on a table. A ball rolls out from a patch of undergrowth. A balloon hovers in some overhead wires. And then the screen fades to black. The images in this montage are commonplace, but they add up to a gut-wrenching whole: this is how Fritz Lang’s pessimistic masterpiece M announces the murder of young Elsie Beckmann (Inge Landgut). And how we learn, too, that there really are monsters among us; waiting to tear our ordinary, routine lives to shreds.
The monster in this case is the serial killer Franz Becker (Peter Lorre): a grotesque creature of Sturm und Drang, set loose on the hard streets of a German city. For their part, the population responds with panic, anger and disgust — convulsing like a body in its death throes — while the morally equivalent forces of organised crime and organised law work to hunt this aberration down. What emerges is an irresistible mix of journalism, police procedural noir thriller, psychological portrait and dark, dark satire, in which there are no heroes, and the only side worth taking is that of the killer’s victims.
The unifying force is Lang’s technique — rarely in cinema have style and substance reinforced each other so fluently. The scene with Elsie Beckmann’s death is typical: the camera lingers on empty spaces, while off-screen sounds and encroaching shadows alert us to the presence of someone, something, close by. It delivers a message as chilling as it is historically prescient. There’s a vacuum for evil to fill. And it’s about to step into the frame. PH
(Alfred Hitchcock, 1946)
So what’s so good about Alfred Hitchcock? Easy. His interest in people. Despite the intricate plotting, stylistic daring, subtextual resonance and — on occasion — downright schlockiness of his cinema, it rarely disconnects from the human drama at its core. And nowhere is that more apparent than in Notorious.
The film’s postwar canvas sure is expansive. It’s got spies, Nazis-in-hiding and a hint of nuclear annihilation. Yet the focus remains on the dangerous love triangle between a government agent (Cary Grant), a socialite (Ingrid Bergman) and the traitor they’re trying to ensnare (Claude Rains). To spell it out: Grant falls for Bergman, and she for him, but she has to marry Rains for the sake of the mission.
It’s this perverse set-up, rather than any quantity of uranium, which gives Notorious its bite. How long can Grant and Bergman survive the mental torture as she, quite literally, sleeps with the enemy? How long can Bergman survive the physical torture when that enemy discovers the double-cross? The suspense is etched into the faces of the actors, and it’s damn near unbearable.
Oh, and the ending. The ending rivals any other in Hitchcock’s work. No twist nor great revelation — but pure catharsis, and a lesson for those who stand on the wrong side of history. Maybe love really can conquer all. PH
(Billy Wilder, 1950)
They may call Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959) the funniest movie ever made, but his baroque masterpiece Sunset Boulevard tells a superior joke. It starts with the boldest of set-ups: our protagonist, a jaded screenwriter, is already dead — face down in the pool of a Hollywood mansion — and he tells us so himself via a narration from the hereafter. What follows is an intricate explanation of how he wound up there. It involves several wrong turns; countless sickos and chancers; and one misguided love affair with the old-time movie star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). Wilder guides us through this parody of the American Dream like someone who’s lived it, until we reach a deliciously arch conclusion: Desmond, crazy and deluded, believes her arrest for murder is instead a glorious moment on a film set. ‘I’m ready for my close-up!’ she intones. And, at last, the punchline is revealed: there are no heroes in Hollywood — only corpses and the psychotically vain. PH
Pierrot le fou
(Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)
A contradiction in primary colours, Pierrot le fou delights in setting incompatible thoughts, styles and images against each other. It’s the thriller as a musical-comedy. The protest as a love-letter. And the comic book as an art movie. Little wonder that a cameo appearance by the American director Samuel Fuller has him declare: ‘Film is like a battleground’.
It all holds together for two main reasons. The first is Godard’s infectious joie du cinéma, patented in his debut feature À bout de souffle (1961), and apparent in every careful shot and every goofy reference to another film. The thicker he lays it on, the clearer Pierrot le fou’s underlying philosophy becomes. It says, simply: ‘Why not?’ And, accordingly, what could have been arch, or disengagingly cerebral, ends up being fun, fun, fun.
Then there are the charming lead performances by Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina, as lovers on the run from nothing to nowhere. They play off each other wonderfully, especially in the musical sequences where Karina’s enthusiasm is met — more often than not — with a bemused puff on a cigarette from Belmondo. Yes, this is a perfect New Wave double act. It’s just a pity that their characters’ love is doomed. PH
(Charlie Chaplin, 1931)
Really, all you need to know about Charlie Chaplin’s masterpiece is that it’s a silent film shot three years after the dawn of sound. He could have made City Lights a talkie — but he didn’t, and had no need to. After all, the story is simplicity itself: Chaplin’s iconic Tramp character falls in love with a blind flower girl (Virginia Cherrill), who mistakenly takes him for a millionaire. So why bother with words when a glance, a comic shuffle or the twirl of a cane says everything that needs to be said? Why risk detracting from the sheer cinema of it all?
The end result, a ‘comedy romance in pantomime’, contains more memorable scenes than most dialogue-laden films can manage: the introduction of the Tramp, asleep on top of a statue; those masterful camera pans during his first encounter with the flower girl; the crowd of dogs following Chaplin after he swallows a whistle; and the beautifully choreographed, utterly hilarious prize-fight sequence.
As with most of Chaplin’s work, the individual moments don’t just hang in isolation. Instead, they coalesce, swell, and hit the viewer like a tidal wave. You can’t help but be caught up and swept towards one of the most joyous conclusions that Hollywood has ever produced. In a way, it’s obvious what’s coming: she’ll get her eyesight back, see that he’s not a millionaire and love him all the same. But you can’t second-guess the actual impact of that scene: a perfection of form, theme and emotional resonance, topped off with a luminous final shot. ‘Yes, I can see now,’ reads the last title card. And we can see, too, the full extent of Chaplin’s genius. PH
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 27, 2009