|by The Guv'nor
I have a little confession to make. Up until 12 months ago I had seen very few "old" movies (which I define as any film released prior to 1960), and what is worse the thought did not unduly concern me. I will admit that I occasionally awoke at 3.00 a.m. to the tune of a spectral voice gravely informing me that anyone who thinks that they're going to write about movies should have a grounding in the works of the past, but by and large I was content to ignore such admonishments and limit my viewing to films released in the last 30 years.
Given that I rarely do anything without cause, I can offer some measure of explanation for my stance. Since I watch movies to escape from reality (and is there really any other reason to do so?), I prefer films which readily enable the suspension of disbelief. The advances in special effects and sound and picture quality over the last few decades have ensured that losing yourself in a film is easier than it ever was, and it was my belief that the poor effects and presentation of many of the older films made that degree of immersion difficult (it's hard to achieve the appropriate level of nirvana when the spaceships are obviously made of cardboard, for example).
The other problem is that times have definitely changed over the last 60 years (now there's a momentous observation …) I questioned whether I could truly relate to the ideas, morals and lifestyles of the characters depicted in these ancient works, for the tyranny of distance often causes us to view the relics of the past with a studious interest, precluding the gut-level connection which modern-day artefacts are capable of eliciting.
I suppose by now you've guessed where I'm heading. It's another tale of how the bonehead author was proved to be nowhere near as smart as he thought he was, and conducting this act of self-flagellation in public is probably just penance for my crimes. So be it.
So like I said, about 12 months ago I decided I was going to spend a week of my holidays watching one old movie a day, the better to know of what I spoke. I chose a selection of recognised classics, and day after day I subjected myself to the music of times long gone
And, by and large, what I found was very good indeed. By the end of my pilgrimage the flaws in my arguments were painfully apparent, and if you haven't already divined them I'll let you in on the secret now.
Firstly, effects are only relevant for films which require them. A film like The Third Man requires almost nothing in the way of modern-day whizz-bang trickery, since it is set entirely within the confines of war-torn Vienna (and since it was shot in 1949, Vienna really was war-torn, so the film's creators were not required to recreate the period through lavish sets). Not only that, many of these films serve to prove that innovative camerawork and lighting can achieve far more than state-of-the-art CGI could ever dream.
Secondly, it is probably only in the area of comedy where the passage of time becomes an issue. It is strange how what we find amusing seems to change every decade or so - does anybody really get a laugh out of Laurel and Hardy or The Three Stooges anymore? I recall my parents being greatly amused by the British television comedies of the seventies (Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em, The Benny Hill Show, etc), but today you couldn't get them to watch one of those shows if you staked them out over a nest of fire ants. I would therefore suggest that our tastes in comedy are, to a large extent, dictated by what we are continuously exposed to, leaving only a few die-hard genre fans to appreciate the works of times gone by (I just know there's some Three Stooges fans out there preparing letter bombs with my name on them as we speak.)
However, in all other areas (and, to a certain extent, with some types of comedy as well), there is this little issue of the eternal human condition. The times may have changed, but people have, at their cores, remained the same. It would be ridiculous to suggest that a Roman centurion would have seen the world in the same light as you or I, but we cannot deny that he experienced the same wants, needs, hopes and desires as a modern-day shop assistant. The entire story of the human race is one of individuals seeking love, comfort and meaning in a world which doesn't seem to give a damn, and so to assert that we cannot relate to the actions of a person who lived some fifty years ago is way off base.
All of this being said, I have to admit that, by and large, I still prefer films released in the past 30 years. My top twenty films of all time would probably contain about three films released prior to 1960, but that's simply because I believe that there's seventeen other films which are better than every other film ever released, whatever their date of production.
However, I have definitely learned the error of my ways. I stand before you now, battered and bowed, and beg your forgiveness for my stupidity. I saw the light, folks, and I'm just damned glad to be here.
And so, to the movies which brought about this renaissance. Allow me to introduce you to the missionaries who converted the ignorant heathen - they sure pack one hell of a sermon.
Goodbye Mr Chips (1939)
(Directed by Sam Wood, Written by James Hilton and R.C. Sherrif)
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)
(Written and Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger)
More than most, I suffer from a heart made heavy by the transience of human existence. The knowledge that our time on this planet is so terribly limited is a source of constant sorrow to me, and so I find solace in the belief that, despite the looming shadow of the grave, our lives are worthwhile if we live them honestly, and do our damnedest to make the lives of those we love a better place to be.
So it is that I'm a sucker for films which depict the effects of the passage of time on their protagonists, the way people change, and grow, and touch the lives of others during their lifelong quest to find something to believe in amidst the inevitable tragedy of daily existence. This is why I am deeply affected by films like Mr Holland's Opus and For the Boys - I can forgive them their failings, for they speak to the part of me which realises that, whichever way you look at it, my life is probably half over, and wonders what story I will tell when I sit at this keyboard thirty years from now.
Films such as these are not always entirely successful - to attempt to compress an entire life into a couple of hours is a difficult task, and inevitably we are given to feel that perhaps too much has been left out, often resulting in a fractured narrative which reads more like a series of snapshots than a coherent story. On the other hand, this approach often fosters a strong attachment to the characters, for we feel as if we are privy to an entire life, not just an excerpt from a much larger work.
All of which probably goes some of the way to explaining why I rate these films so highly.
Goodbye Mr Chips is an obvious precursor to Mr Holland's Opus, given that it concerns itself with some forty years in the life of a schoolteacher at an upper-crust educational institution. It is a beautifully acted piece, with Robert Donat deeply affecting as the title character. His unique inflexions and persistently befuddled demeanour exert a profound charm, putting one in mind of a naïve but loveable uncle. Greer Garson is equally charming, exuding a warmth which invites the viewer to love her almost as much as Chips does, and which is in direct contrast to the rampant sexual reaction so often sought by today's actresses. I would also be remiss if I didn't mention Paul Henreid, whose portrayal of Chips' erstwhile travelling companion makes you wish he could step off the screen and walk a few miles by your side. All up it's a brilliant ensemble, and when you consider that even the actors playing the schoolchildren manage to turn in convincing portrayals you've got a film which would be great even if it had nothing else to recommend it.
Nothing could be further from the truth, of course. I will admit that much of this film's charm comes from its portrayal of a time long gone, when politeness and civility were the order of the day (maybe that's not exactly how things were back then, but it's how it should have been). However, this is by no means a period piece, since the actions and motivations of the characters resonate through the years to touch us in the same places they would have touched our grandparents when they first sat down to enjoy this film. So it is that we are presented with a succession of memorable moments, from Chips' fumbling attempts to court his future wife to his understated recital of the names of the dead in the school chapel. And, of course, there's the bittersweet scene where Chips, Katherine and Max toast to their future happiness in Chips' chambers - the warmth aroused by their friendship and anticipation, coupled with the knowledge of what is to come, ensure it will live in my memory forever.
Unfortunately, this film does suffer from two minor problems. The first is that it moves at a cracking pace, covering forty years in under two hours, and as such the last twenty years or so feel somewhat compressed. The second is that it is a very unhappy tale - I'm not sure if we were supposed to feel that Chips' life was a fulfilling one (the final scene seems to suggest this interpretation), but I for one found it to be a deeply depressing requiem for a person who deserved so much more. To lose everything we once loved is the true darkness at the heart of the human condition, and in the face of such pain questions of whether it is better to have loved and lost are all but meaningless. There is no triumphant assembly-hall rave-up at the end of this film, but rather a gentle walk into the good night. This is certainly not a reason to disparage the movie, but I wish the screenwriters had seen fit to inject some measure of light into the final thirty minutes.
On the other hand, what we are left with is an honest film, and if that means we must leave with tears rather than smiles then so be it. It's the music of life, and as we know there are times when that's a melancholy tune indeed.
The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp suffers from one of the most ludicrous titles ever devised (at least to a modern-day citizen of the world, who has probably never heard of the satiric cartoon character to which the name refers). However, it more than makes up for it by presenting us with a tale which canvasses practically every human emotion ever to see the light of day. Charting a course from the exultation of youth to the weary resignation of old age, we are presented with forty years in the life of one Clive Candy, a loyal subject of the Queen whose unshakeable sense of chivalry and fair play are sorely tried by a world which conspires to leave such notions far behind, consigning him to the status of a relic of the past.
This is a long, involving tale (beware any but the full 163 min. version), anchored by the brilliant performances of Roger Livesy and Anton Walbrook as two men who overcome the differences in their national and personal ideologies to become firm friends for longer than many of us have been alive. Following Candy's escapades through two world wars, it's a bittersweet tale of love, loss and friendship, infused with a weary sense of inevitability as its protagonist refuses to compromise his ideals in the face of overwhelming evidence that the day of his kind is drawing to a close.
It is only when you realise that this film was shot during the Second World War that the bravery of its creators becomes apparent. There are some who have suggested the film was an exercise in propaganda, but nothing could be further from the truth. I would suggest that any flag-waving is simply a logical extension of Candy's character, rather than an attempt by the film's creators to pursue some jingoistic agenda. What is more, when you consider that Churchill banned the export of the film for fear that it would undermine the war effort it is apparent that, if anything, Powell and Pressburger came to bury as much as praise. (And it is quite strange to consider that when the film was written its authors had no idea who would actually win the war, denying them a neat conclusion to the events depicted therein).
None of these means much, however, because what we have here is a beautifully-crafted film which insinuates itself into the viewer's consciousness and never quite departs. Candy is never entirely likeable, but in Livesey's capable hands he is rarely less than sympathetic, and the arc of his existence echoes our own as he winds his way through the trials and tribulations of a life which never quite fulfils its early promise. So it is that we are presented with a tale which covers practically every base imaginable, from love lost and found to the call of duty and the insistent call of the past, all washed down with a healthy dose of weariness, regret and dogged determination. Add to this some sparkling dialogue, an able performance from Deborah Kerr, and a heartfelt sense of loss occasioned by the companions who fall to the inexorable march of time, and you've got a film which may just make you look at your life and ask some questions best left unanswered.
It's a life writ small, and it speaks to us all. Not to be missed.
On the Waterfront (1954)
(Directed by Elia Kazan, Written by Bud Schulberg)
It has to be said that I am not Marlon Brando's greatest fan. Despite his revered status as one of the original method actors, I have always found him vaguely distracting. It's almost as if, in his quest to immerse himself in his roles, he loses the ability to portray his characters naturally. Every twitch, every mannerism, every inflexion is exactly as it should be, and I can but feel that it is perhaps that very perfection which lends a certain detachment to his roles. He's trying too hard, and the viewer is left to admire his expertise as one would a work of art - beautiful, to be sure, but also depressingly unapproachable.
That being said, no one can deny that his performance in this film positively radiates aggression. It's a simple tale of union corruption which relies heavily on characterisation and dialogue for its effect, said effect being the cinematic equivalent of a knuckle-duster to the face. Nary a sliver of light is permitted to illuminate the proceedings, as Malloy loses practically everything he holds dear through his refusal to keep his head buried safely in the sand.
There are some great scenes in this film. Much has been made of Brando's "I coulda been a contender" soliloquy, but for my money the highlight is Karl Malden's cargo bay speech, a rousing, imploring spectacle which makes you want to get out there and bust a few heads yourself (and for someone whose previous exposure to Mr Malden consisted almost entirely of The Streets of San Francisco, the revelation that he actually could act was a pleasant one). The courtship between Brando and Eva Marie Saint evokes just the right amount of tension (you're just waiting for him to commit a fatal faux pas), putting me in mind of DeNiro's attempts at the same in Taxi Driver. And, of course, there's those final, brutal scenes, and if they do have a bit of the triumph-over-the-odds cliché about them it's entirely forgivable, since the screenwriter would have been lynched had some measure of justice not been enacted in response to the indignities suffered by Malloy for the rest of the film.
All of this being said, I have to say that of the six films I watched during that week this was the one which affected me the least. I think that's simply because it's a little unapproachable, featuring characters with whom it is difficult to form any kind of emotional attachment (Malloy may be many things, but a hero he ain't). That's not necessarily a reason to disparage the film, but it does mean that you may find yourself viewing the proceedings with a healthy dose of that detachment I mentioned earlier. On the other hand, the power of the performances and the narrative are such that you are unlikely to walk away completely unscathed.
Or, to put it another way - everyone should see the Mona Lisa at least once in their lifetime, and so to should they see this film. You may not be able to touch them, but, in the end, they may well touch you.
The Searchers (1956)
(Directed by John Ford, Written by Alan Le May and Frank S. Nugent)
If I've never much warmed to Brando, my reaction to John Wayne has been positively frigid. I'm not going to invite derision by proclaiming him the Stallone of his time, but there are few who could honestly state that his acting ability is anything to write home about (though, in fact, it's probably not his acting which is at fault, but rather his natural personality. From what I've seen of his activities outside of the silver screen the line between Wayne the actor and Wayne the man seems to be blurred at best).
However, with this film Wayne found a vehicle which suited his style admirably. His portrayal of Ethan Edwards - a jaded, tough-as-nails, indian-hating son-of-a-bitch - is note perfect, and once he's of a mind to "rescue" his niece from the clutches of the dastardly Comanches you just know he ain't gonna stop 'til she's resting safely in his arms (or a grave, as it turns out, since he gets it into his head that anyone who lies down with the enemy may just be more deserving of a bullet than a gentle reproach.)
This film charts the five year journey undertaken by Wayne and his depressingly earnest sidekick to track down Wayne's niece, kidnapped from her homestead by marauding Indians (who also saw fit to commit acts of murder and mayhem on the rest of Wayne's relatives while they were at it. Big mistake.) It is an epic quest (aided by the film's two hour running time), eventually taking on a near-mythic quality as the trail grows cold, only to pick up again through some freak of chance. And through it all, Wayne keeps the fire of his anger burning, his single-minded intensity etched into every line on his face.
What really lifts this film above the countless other Westerns released over the years (besides Wayne's performance, that is), is the script, which is peppered with memorable moments. It's worth noting that there is a truly bizarre fight scene between Wayne's sidekick and the guy who stole his gal, which is a pure example of the kind of whimsical frippery you just couldn't get away with in a modern film. However, I am, of course, talking about the Big Three - the close-up of Wayne's face as he rubs down his horse, the knowledge that his family is being slaughtered colliding with the fact that there's not a damn thing he can do about it; Wayne lifting his niece into the air as she runs into his arms, not knowing if he's going to hug her or shoot her (being a scene which almost brought a tear to my jaded eye, I might add); and the final "doorway" scene, a eulogy for anyone who has ever stood on the outside looking in, and known that wherever their place may be, it's not here.
This may not be the best Western ever released (I reserve that honour for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly), but if ever you need proof of the worth of the genre, you'll find it here. Great stuff.
The Third Man (1949)
(Directed by Carol Reed, Written by Graham Greene and Alexander Korda)
Citizen Kane (1941)
(Directed by Orson Welles, Written by Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles)
From the moment that insidiously catchy zither score began playing over the opening credits, I had the feeling I was in for something special. To a student of the present-day the names meant little ("Joseph Cotton? Never heard of him."), but I'd heard a great many good things about this film from people whose taste was rarely in doubt. So it was that I sat back, put the feet up on the coffee table, and waited to be impressed.
One hundred minutes later, I realised that I had witnessed one of the ten best films ever made, and knew that my statement that "I don't like old films" would never see the light of day again.
So why do I proclaim this film a masterpiece? Well, let us count the ways:
* Two words - Joseph Cotton. Holly Martins, the author of dimestore Westerns come to Vienna to search out an old friend, is as sympathetic a character as you are ever likely to encounter. He's Everyman, fraught with the same foibles and failings as you or I. Everything he does, from his vaguely reprehensible attempts to become romantically involved with his dead friend's lover to his ultimate betrayal, is understandable, for he is no hero, merely an average Joe making the best of a bad situation. We can identify with such a man, and Cotton is perfect for the role. He infuses his character with a pleasing vulnerability, his open, inviting face seemingly incapable of deception. We want him to succeed, for a victory for him is a victory for us all, and his ultimate failure evokes a genuine sorrow. It is a masterful performance, and so it is fitting that he is partnered by one of the few actors who could steal even a little of his thunder …
* Orson Welles. Is Harry Lime a villain? Undoubtedly. Is he universally unlikeable? Not on your life. The charm, the charisma of the man fairly radiates from the screen, and when he delivers his famous "cuckoo clock" monologue it's hard not to be convinced that maybe, just maybe, there's something to what he says after all. For someone who has very little screen time Welles looms surprisingly large, stamping his authority on the film with the strength of an industrial press. And has there ever been a better moment in the history of cinema than his first appearance in the doorway, that utterly perfect look of bemusement on his face?
* Style, and the will to use it. The "doorway" scene mentioned above is the obvious highlight, but this film is positively brimming with imaginative use of the camera. Shadows the size of buildings, hands reaching through grates, the disorientation of the chase through the sewers - this is what filmmaking is all about, to find ways of showing things which transcend the everyday.
* The final scene. Dale Thomajan called it the "Best Unhappy Ending" in the history of cinema, and I can but agree. Cotton's weariness as he lights his cigarette is almost tangible, and marks the perfect end to a near-perfect film. Roll credits.
So that's all there is to it, really - consummate actors working from a memorable script, partnered with a director who knows when to play it straight and when to try for something a little different. What it adds up to is a film which single-handedly establishes the worth of the cinema as an artistic endeavour, and represents top-shelf entertainment to boot.
Which brings us to Citizen Kane, the pick of many critics as the best film of all time. I am, however, vaguely disquieted by the number of times the film's various innovations are called in to support this assertion. Let's get one thing straight - the fact that a film beats a path through previously unexplored territory should not be a factor in evaluating its merits (I call this the "Sergeant Pepper Syndrome"). We must instead consider how this particular effort measures up when stacked against every other film ever released, and it is my opinion that, while there is much to like, it is by no means the unassailable masterpiece many have made it out to be.
So that you do not misunderstand me, know that I am by no means disparaging this film. None can deny that Welles and Cotton turn in their usual affecting performances (Welles' belying his relative youth), and the script does an excellent job of charting Kane's life from a brash young firebrand to an embittered, empty old man. However, as with On the Waterfront, I found it difficult to become involved with the characters (Cotton excepted), since the film adopts a reasonably detached approach (heralded, strangely enough, by the newsreels which open the film). It's almost like an ant farm - stand back and watch the people build their lives, but don't get too close lest you disrupt the proceedings. I think the easiest way to see what I'm talking about is to compare this film to The Third Man - the latter is a vibrant, energetic work, while Kane inexorably sinks into the mire of its own cautionary pontificating.
I could go on at length, but there seems little point. The fact is that I walked away from this film both unmoved and unchanged, and I would suggest that any film which stakes a claim as the best film of all time should be capable of a little more than that. Yes, it is an important film, and if you haven't seen it you should rectify that oversight immediately, but it is patently obvious that a great many people saw something in this film which I didn't. If that sees me branded a know-nothing dilettante then so be it - you know I've never been afraid of looking foolish in public.
* * *
So that's it, folks. I realise that several of you are probably already shaking your heads in dismay at the film's I didn't watch ("How could you have missed Casablanca, you schmuck?"), but it was more than enough to prove a point. I've learned my lesson well, and if any of you are in the same position I was some twelve months ago I urge you to consider undertaking a similar bout of spiritual healing.
The past may be gone, but it speaks to us still. Can you hear the music?
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=201
originally posted: 04/30/00 22:20:58
last updated: 12/09/00 10:57:49