I catch up… then I get behind. But I’m staying reasonably on top of these posts for now… possibly because I’ve been rewatching Battlestar Galactica so I’ve not been watching movies all the time.
Le trou*, Jacques Becker (1960, France). As I was watching this, I kept on thinking I was watching a Robert Bresson film, because it could just as easily have made by him – in many ways, Le trou reminds me a lot of A Man Escaped, at least more than just “man escapes from French prison”. Which is pretty much the plot. A group of prisoners in a cell dig a hole in the floor, which leads them into the prison’s cellars. From there, they find their way into the sewers… except the sewer tunnel is blocked, so they must dig around the concrete plug blocking it. The story is based on a real prison escape and, in fact, one of the original escapees plays himself in the film (well, sort of, the names are all changed, although I’m not sure why). There’s a matter of factness to Becker’s direction, despite which the film remains too… personal, too readily creates a narrative from its cast’s back-stories… to come across as a documentary. It makes for an odd disconnect. True, Le trou can be watched as a work of fiction and, in fact, that’s probably the easiest way to watch it, and the way most people are likely to watch it. (I can’t remember if the film opens with text explaining it’s a dramatisation of real events.) It’s the opposite, I suppose, of the 1980s penchant for dramatising documentaries, making something with a fictional format of them.
City Girl, FW Murnau (1930, USA). It’s the age-old story: farmer’s son goes to the big city to sell the corn harvest, meets a young woman, falls in love, marries her, doesn’t get the expected price for the corn, goes back home with new bride, but farmer is not happy – at the reduced price for the corn or the new wife. Things get worse. But then they realise the errors of their ways, and everyone lives happily ever after. While the cinematography and direction are up to Murnau’s usual standard, where this film really scores is in depicting life on a US farm in the late 1920s. The harvesting scenes are especially fascinating, because the technology used is sort of halfway between how you imagine it was done in the nineteenth century or earlier and how it’s done now. I do like Murnau’s films – they’re straightforward, the characters are well-drawn, if somewhat broadly so, and for their time they’re cutting-edge, which makes them interesting as historical documents. Murnau is also a good example of those German directors who crossed over to Hollywood and, you would like to think, caused Hollywood to up its game and produce serious films instead of endless variations on the Keystone Cops. It’s not as if Murnau was on his own – Lang, Lubitsch, Wilder, von Stroheim, Sirk, even Hitchcock, who cut his teeth in the German film industry. Not all of them stayed, of course. Lang’s last films were made in Germany (well, India – but they were German films), and von Stroheim retired to France. City Girl is by no means Murnau’s best – that would have to be Nosferatu or Tabu – but it’s still worth seeing. [dual]
Through a Glass Darkly*, Ingmar Bergman (1961, Sweden). Two couples – father, son, daughter and son-in-law – are holidaying on Fårö, a Swedish island in the Baltic (which Bergman loved so much, he ended up moving there). Father is a novelist and has just returned from working abroad. Daughter has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, but refuses treatment. Son-in-law is a doctor and is having trouble persuading father of the severity of his wife’s condition. And son is not happy about his father’s absences. If films were books, then Bergman’s movies would be literary fiction. And watching one of his films is like reading a polished literary short story, the sort that fifty years later is studied in schools. Even the stark black and white cinematography of Through a Glass Darkly feels like a deliberate choice to create a precise atmosphere, much as a writer crafts sentences. Bergman’s use of ensemble acting and a stable of actors only heightens the likeness: three of the actors in Through a Glass Darkly – von Sydow, Andersson and Björnstrand – were all part of Bergman’s stock company at some point in their careers. 
Laura*, Otto Preminger (1944, USA). I had high hopes for this famous noir film – not just because of the genre or director, but also because it starred Gene Tierney, who appeared in several classic noir films. But… the film opens after Laura’s murder, with a detective trying to find out who the killer is. He interviews Laura’s patron, an effete newspaper columnist, and Laura’s boyfriend, a louche playboy. The detective learns so much about Laura that he begins to obsess over her… so he’s somewhat flabbergasted when he falls asleep in her apartment and she walks through the door. Turns out it wasn’t Laura who was killed, but one of her models (the body’s face had been destroyed by a shotgun blast, but since it happened Laura’s apartment they assumed it was her). Preminger directed some killer noir films, and Tierney was the epitome of a 1940s Hollywood femme fatale – no matter the role, she seemed to take into herself all the baggage associated with the character. I suspect this was due to the fact she wasn’t actually a very good actress. She had screen presence, certainly; but she never seemed especially convincing – not that it was a requirement at the time, cf Ava Gardner’s career – and the same is true in Laura. Tierney is more of a centre around which the story revolves, in which position she does quite a good job. But Laura the character is about as convincing as a unicorn, and the story of the film is not much better. Had I been putting together the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list myself, I would have chosen a different Preminger noir film – Whirlpool, perhaps, or Fallen Angel. Not this lacklustre affair.
Love One Another, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1922, Germany). What an odd film. I say that having seen – and even liking – any number of odd films. I am, I admit, a fan of Dreyer’s films, and the more of his films I watch, and the more times I watch each of them, the more my admiration grows – but, let’s face it, most probably know of him only from his three Danish films of the 1940s, Day of Wrath, Ordet and Gertrud. But they’re products of the end of his career, and his earlier stuff is also very good (to be fair, The Passion of Joan of Arc is also pretty well known) but even so, the BFI aside, Dreyer’s entire oeuvre is not that readily available. He bounced around in his early years – working in Denmark, Norway and Germany… and it is the last country where this film was made. It’s based on a novel – Elsker hverandre by Aage Madelung from 1918 – and is set in Russia in the late nineteenth century. The central character is a Jewish girl who experiences anti-semitism on a daily basis but falls in love with a Gentile, Sasha. When news of the affair surfaces, she is expelled from school and flees to St Petersburg to stay with her brother, who converted to Christianity. She becomes involved with underground revolutionaries and, against the backdrop of the Tsar’s pogroms against the Jews, she manages to get back together with Sasha, and they join the Jew fleeing Russia. Although set in Russia, Love One Another was filmed entirely in Germany. It is, in its way, as important an historical record as Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World, even though it’s fictional. (Apparently, some of the extras in the films were actual survivors of the Jewish pogroms in Tsarist Russia.) Worth seeing. 
Man of the West*, Anthony Mann (1958, USA). I can’t help comparing this film with Shane, released five years earlier, and not to Man of the West‘s advantage. Gary Cooper plays a retired outlaw who, en route to Fort Worth by train to find a teacher for his small town’s new school, finds himself caught up with the outlaw gang to which he once belonged. He has a saloon singer and a con artist in tow, and tries to protect the two from the outlaws (led by his uncle), but only manages by reluctantly agreeing to help them rob a bank in Lassoo. But when he gets to Lassoo, it’s a ghost town and the bank has long since closed. Cue shoot-out. To be honest, Cooper makes a more convincing cowboy than Ladd did in Shane, and even though it’s been a dozen years since he hung up his black hat, at 57 he was probably a little too old for the part. But that’s a minor niggle. The photography is not as impressivas in Stevens’s film, but the story is at least not quite so… melodramatic. It feels like a Western from a later period. After watching Shane on rental DVD, I bought myself a copy of the Master of Cinema edition Blu-ray. I don’t think I’ll be doing the same for Man of the West, although a Masters of Cinema edition has been released.
The Phantom of Liberty, Luis Buñuel (1970, France). I rented this to test if my Theory of Godard could be applied to Buñuel, even though it had already failed several times. I have this theory, you see, that Godard’s films in colour are better than those in black and white – at least, the Godard fims I’ve seen which I like have all been in colour. But that’s not strictly true for Buñuel – I liked The Exterminating Angel a lot (black and white), but not Tristana or Belle du jour so much (both colour). I did like Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (colour)… but did that mean I’d like The Phantom of Liberty… especially since it’s considered amongst his most surreal films (or rather, most experimental plot-wise)? The easy answer is… yes, I liked it; and no, it seems the theory only really applies to Godard. The Phantom of Liberty does not have a plot, it’s just a series of vignettes linked by characters, none of which are actually resolved. Some feel like failed comedy sketches – the Carmelite monks who play poker using holy relics as chips, Michael Lonsdale throwing an impromptu room party and then his wife dresses up in her dominatrix outfit and whips him on the arse, the dinner party where the guests sit on toilets at the table and shit but go to a private room to eat; others are not remotely comedic, such as the sniper in the Tour Montparnasse, or the police chief who gets a phone call from his dead sister. They are all, however, mostly surreal – like the emu that wanders through a man’s bedroom as he tries to sleep. On balance, I think The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie the better film, but I did enjoy The Phantom of Liberty, and I plan to watch more of Buñuel’s films.
1001 Movies you Must See Before You Die count: 768