Tuesday, January 31, 2012

#413: The Docks of New York

1927, TSPDT Rank #784

This is the first film of the Josef von Sternberg marathon that I will be having, continuing throughout the next few days, in which I will be watching and commenting on the six Sternberg films I have yet to watch of the eight on the list (the two I've seen are Morocco and Shanghai Express).

The Docks of New York is a film from the end of the silent era, which unfortunately ended as silent films were reaching a new level of sophistication and beauty. This film feels somewhat like a lesser Sunrise (the F.W. Murnau masterpiece from the previous year), as it contains much of the same themes and visual feel of that film. However, while the foggy expressionist visual style is impressive and the theme of working-class people trying to form and subsequently mend a meaningful relationship is potent, I think that the strong emotional potential isn't tapped all that well until the last act of the film. The last act is great indeed, but what comes before felt too mediocre and not very meaningful to what comes later. It is still a very good film, just not as balanced or effective as it could have been. I had similar issues with Sternberg's previous film, The Last Command (not on the list), but not with his other 1927 film, Underworld (also not on the list), which I thought was a fantastic and groundbreaking early gangster film, and would give a very high recommendation. Luckily, the Criterion Collection has packaged all three of these silent films by Sternberg into a DVD box set, and they're all worth seeing despite what your personal preferences from film to film might be. Josef von Sternberg was definitely proving himself an important and interesting director, even in these years prior to the rather famous partnership he found himself in at the dawn of the sound era, which would permanently cement his name in cinematic history forever.

(Rating: 7/10)

Monday, January 23, 2012

#412: The Reckless Moment

Directed by: MAX OPHULS
1949, TSPDT Rank #800

The Reckless Moment is a very unique and fascinating film noir by the great Max Ophuls, with one of my favourite actors, James Mason, in a fantastic and extremely multi-faceted role. It's too bad that more people don't have access to Ophul's Hollywood films, which are actually much less circulated than his European films (which have mostly been released by Criterion). This is a real gem of a film, especially for the film noir fan - which I don't want to assume that everyone who reads this blog is, but given that I am, it should be taken into account that I'm biased. It's a cross between film noir and melodrama (Ophul's specialty), but in the case of this film, unlike his earlier film with Mason, Caught, the noir element is more pronounced than the melodrama. Nevertheless, the melodramatic aspect gives the familiar basic plot outline of the "accidental murder" and failure of the following cover-up a very different taste than you might be used to. And of course Ophuls mixes all of these elements up into a film which doesn't really resemble any other, except possibly some of his own - given the trademark ever-moving but graceful camera, and the cool, understated, yet visually rich way of handling the tension. Max Ophuls certainly was a master, with a unique and engrossing style which has been imitated often by some of the best both past and present (Kubrick and PT Anderson to name just two), but never quite matched. More on Ophuls will be on the way, as I have some of his biggest European films to get to yet in the near future. But for the time being, I highly recommend The Reckless Moment, and promise more on this great director soon to come.

(Rating: 9/10)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

#411: The Black Cat

Directed by: EDGAR G. ULMER
1934, TSPDT Rank #987

How I ever got so lucky to watch and review not one but TWO masterpieces in the same day is beyond me. I almost hope I get to review something I consider terrible in the near future so that any new readers don't think I write exclusively in hyperbole. However, you can trust that I am a discerning viewer (see reviews of The Lord of the Rings trilogy in the archives), and that I really do mean it sincerely when I call a film a masterpiece. Anyhow, on with the review.

The Black Cat is by far my favorite of the '30s Universal horror films that I've seen so far. And what's more, it seems to be basically unknown to the majority of viewers, save the more serious film buffs (including myself, I suppose). It far surpasses the two most famous films of this group, Dracula and Frankenstein, but however, the respective stars of those films (Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff) share the screen together here - and with very great success. The chemistry between all of the actors, especially the two leads, is nothing short of miraculous. Edgar G. Ulmer's direction of this brilliant, twisted material is just perfect - the pacing seamless, and all of the insane plot twists advanced with delicate subtlety - which makes the material all the more potent. Watching this today, and knowing it was made it the 1930s, would cause most to assume it was a pre-code film, but shockingly enough - it wasn't! Pay attention during the entire climax and final encounter between Karloff and Lugosi, and marvel at the fact that The Black Cat was passed with no argument by the ultra-conservative Hays Code. How that ever happened, I have no clue, but I guess it just adds another layer to the mystique this bizarre gem has already built up for itself. So if you happen to watch this film, consider yourself one of the lucky ones - you will have just watched one of the great early American horror films.

(Rating: 10/10)

#410: Shane

1953, TSPDT Rank #266

Shane is a masterpiece of its genre - and quite likely the quintessential American western. The classic and simple plot of homesteaders standing up against a ruthless cattle baron is elevated to a towering allegorical fight between the ultimate good and evil. Both groups have an equally effective representative - Alan Ladd's titular character radiates strength, courage, and all that would be considered good; while Jack Palance's Wilson should be on the short list of character portrayals that are closest to evil. Whenever he is on screen, the threat of pure evil just oozes off the screen. This might be the classic western by which to judge all others, because it fully embodies the myth of the American West from almost every aspect, from its characters, to its depiction of the old-fashioned black-and-white morals, to the striking, perfect gunfight that closes the film. The staggeringly stunning cinematography paints a gorgeous and definitive picture of how the old frontier was and still is thought of in our collective psyches - as a rich, beautiful land where freedom is for the taking and the possibilities are limitless. In other words -the Promised Land. So if you look to this film for character nuance and subtle grit, you will be missing the almost biblical proportions it takes the western to. It has many flaws when you get down to its finer points - but in all the ways that matter, this is a flawless western classic.

(Rating: 10/10)