It seems to be mostly US films in this post, but that’s just the way the rental DVDs came. And all but one film are from the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list too.
The Thin Blue Line*, Errol Morris (1988, USA). There are a number of documentaries on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list, and while I can understand why they were chosen I’m not entirely convinced they still hold up today. The Thin Blue Line is a case in point. It’s a study of a cop killing in the US in 1976, for which an innocent man was sentenced to death (although his death sentence was actually commuted to life imprisonment). If every miscarriage of justice in the US prompted a documentary, we wouldn’t be able to move for the damn things. There’s not much in this one that makes it especially interesting – the man found was found guilty thanks to perjured testimony and a determination by the district attorney to make a case, despite all the evidence suggesting another perpetrator. That the actual killer came from a community with a strong KKK presence may have had something to do with it, but The Thin Blue Line shies away from outright accusations. Apparently, this documentary was one of the first to make use of re-enactments of the crime although, interestingly, the re-enactments shown are as per the various witnesses and not the actual suggested series of events. It was mildly interesting.
Being There*, Hal Ashby (1979, USA). Although I’ve been aware of this film for several decades, I’d never actually seen it. Back in the late 1970s, Peter Sellers was a huge star, so anything he did was news. And Being There, a film in which he plays a mentally disabled man who is forced out into the world when his guardian dies, was a film I remember getting quite a bit of press. And time has apparently been generous to it, seeing that it’s on the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list. Which is, of course, why I stuck it on my rental list, and watched it when it arrived. And… It’s a movie with a single mildly amusing joke – that the complete lack of understanding of Sellers’s character is taken for great wisdom – which it relentlessly flogs to death. It is perhaps overly charitable to describe Being There as a one-joke movie, because it tries desperately hard to find the humour in its premise… and the obvious location is: among the rich and powerful. Humbling those in power – in a non-threatening way that doesn’t actually, er, threaten their power – is a Hollywood speciality, and Being There pokes fun at the US rich and the US presidency with all the subtlety and effectiveness of a sword made of cooked spaghetti. I have no idea why this film was considered worthy of the 1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die list.
The Asphalt Jungle*, John Huston (1950, USA). Although the DVD cover to the left doesn’t feature her, this film is often noted for being one of Marilyn Monroe’s earliest roles. Which is at least notable, as there’s little in this film to actually suggest it might be a superior example of a noir movie. While I recognise it’s hard for old films to demonstrate their reason for inclusion on a list of film classics since techniques they may have originated have become industry standards… And to take a slight swerve sideways, it’s a bit like why John Carter failed so badly – because the tropes it made use of had been used so frequently by science fiction and science fiction cinemas in the century since A Princess of Mars was published, that the movie felt like it was re-using old material when it was actually the origin of that material. And perhaps that’s also true of The Asphalt Jungle – not, of course, that that should be the chief reason for inclusion on such a list – but I suspect Monroe has more to do with its reputation than any inherent quality in the film. A criminal mastermind fresh out of prison arranges a jewellery store heist, but their middleman has secretly decided he’s going to fence the goods himself. Actually, he’s decided he’s going to do a runner with them. Unfortunately, the police are sniffing around the gang for a number of different reasons and then… well, honour among thieves and all that. Noir fans will probably get more out of this film than I did.
The Last Metro*, François Truffaut (1980, France). I think Truffaut’s adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 is a wonderful film, but I’ve not really taken to anything else he has directed. Which now includes this one. Set during the occupation of France by the Nazis, Catherine Deneuve plays the owner of a small theatre which continues to operate – apparently, people would go to the theatre to keep warm as fuel was severely rationed. Her husband, a Jew, has allegedly fled France, but is actually holed up in the theatre’s basement. Meanwhile, Gerard Depardieu has joined the cast as the new male lead… and it all went on a bit and no doubt made a bunch of important points – especially in regard to the collaborationist theatre critic – but it was also dull. The cast were uniformly excellent, and the mise en scène mostly convincing, but there didn’t seem to be anything there to hold the viewer’s attention. I don’t doubt that Truffaut is an important director, and he certainly belongs on a list of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, but I’ve not seen enough of his oeuvre to determine if The Last Metro is the best choice… And yet, the reasons I love his Fahrenheit 451 are purely personal and I don’t know if that makes it worthier of inclusion on such a list.
Shaft*, Gordon Parks (1971, USA). Most people would recognise the theme tune to this film within a few bars, but how many could tell you the plot of the movie? The title character is a private detective who gets involved in a Mafia attempt to move into Harlem and displace black gangsters. It is, pretty much, a bog standard PI film of the 1970s. But it also makes a point of its title character’s race, and asks some important questions along the way. Richard Roundtree is actually surprisingly bad in the title role, although none of the cast actually shine. But the 1970s ambience works well, the pacing is just about right, and the gangster plot resolves itself in a satisfying way. There were many Blaxploitation films released during the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s hard to believe Shaft was among the best of them. As a thriller, it’s an inferior example of the genre, but, bad acting aside, what makes it stand out is its commentary on black culture and society. Roundtree gets to say things that needed saying. And yet, forty-five years later, “black lives matter” is still a thing, and videos of US police beating up, or even killing, black people are uploaded almost daily to Facebook…
She Done Him Wrong*, Sherman Lowell (1933, USA). I think this is the first Mae West film I’ve ever seen, but she was just like I’d imagined she would be. On the other hand, I hadn’t realised Cary Grant was in it – not until he appeared on the screen, that is. West plays a singer in a Bowery saloon, who has many jewels and a lifestlye that doesn’t quite match her occupation. Grant plays a Sally Army captain based in a building next door. But he’s not really, he’s a G-man. And West’s boss and beau has been involved in naughty business. So Grant keeps on popping into the saloon, while West does her thing – which includes taking in a young woman who her boss would, unbeknownst to West, send to San Francisco to be a prostitute or a pickpocket. But West is a surprisingly benevolent figure, despite her image – as, apparently, was West herself, who insisted on having a WOC play against in her in her films and stage shows, and did much to battle racial discrimination in Hollywood. Despite all that, She Done Him Wrong is only mildly entertaining. It all feels a bit melodramatic, and while West sails through the proceedings with all the presence and aplomb of the biggest battleship in the fleet, Grant lacking his later (and customary) sheen isn’t especially watchable, and the the rest of the cast are a bit pantomime. This might well have been an early box office success and Oscar nominee, but I’m not sure that a footnote in the history of US cinema is a good enough reason to qualify as one of the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.
Shane*, George Stevens (1953, USA). I am not a big fan of Westerns, athough I do love me some Technicolor. And Shane, a seminal Western, opens with some gorgeous Technicolor footage of Wyoming. In fact, those first twenty or so minutes are absolutely lovely. But in a genre in which Clint Eastwood has become the defining hero (and anti-hero), Alan Ladd no longer really convinces. The plot too suffers from the raft of similarly-plotted Westerns which have followed, including some by, er, Clint Eastwood. Cattle barons are trying to force the homesteaders to leave so they can take over their land. Into this drifts lone gunman Shane, who stays to help one particular homesteader family. And, well, the story then runs along well-polished rails. A bit too well-polished. There’s some night footage, which is not very effective, and, in keeping with the time, several scenes in which a studio is tricked out to look like the outdoors – which are equally ineffective. The fight scenes also seem a bit… gentlemanly, and not quite violent enough. Interestingly, it was Shane which introduced the effect of using wires to pull back actors when they’d been shot. It’s now an industry-standard effect. I really wanted to like Shane more than I did. The opening footage promised more than the rest of the film delivered, and even the scenes set in town couldn’t manage the charm of my favourite Western, Rio Bravo from 1959. I’m tempted to give Shane another go – there have been several films I’ve not liked much on first viewing, but then come to really like – so I think I’ll keep an eye open for a cheap copy…
The Wild Blue Yonder, Werner Herzog (2005, Germany). The elevator pitch for this movie alone was enough to get me interested: Brad Dourif portrays an alien who tells how his race tried to form a community on Earth, shown over re-purposed footage of Space Shuttle astronauts in orbit and divers beneath the ice in the Antarctica. And yet, watching it… Much as I enjoy watching Dourif, it felt like the film would have been better served by having Herzog himself narrate it. The footage is fascinating, and has that sort of documentary artistic feel that Benning does so beautifully in his films, but the narration – the plot itself, in fact – treads a narrow line between silliness and well, not profundity, but certainly a gravitas appropriate to the imagery. In other hands, or indeed without Dourif’s barking mad staring eyes, I don’t doubt it would have been silly from the moment the opening credits rolled. But Herzog is a genius, and even his maddest projects are clearly the products of genius, no matter how unhinged. The Wild Blue Yonder works, and even though I found this is in a charity shop, it’s a keeper.
1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die count: 665