LA NOTTE (Michelangelo Antonioni)
The second in Antonioni’s trilogy, and another stunner. I confess to being in awe each time I view it, as I marvel at the composition of the images, the emotional resonance between the characters (even though their “disconnect” is a major theme) and the purely cinematic way in which the narrative unfolds.
Antonioni has the uncanny ability to be both the curious explorer and the meticulous coordinator of the expedition at the same time. His films unfold like mysteries as they traverse between the known and the unknown. In his films, as we journey through the world of “modernity and its discontents”, there is both a knowingness in his technique and a complete understanding that there are no real conclusions to be drawn.
One of the great things about cinema is that there are many ways to approach the form and still score. LA NOTTE just seems to cover all the bases. Not only is Antonioni able to command his technical resources to mesmerize with his compelling images, he also utilizes some of the finest actors available (Jeanne Moreau, Marcello Mastroianni, Monica Vitti) to engage us in the narrative. It’s easy to get “wrapped up” in an Antonioni film, and this is one of the best.
ONE-EYED JACKS (Marlon Brando)
One of the most underrated, under-appreciated films ever made. In his only directorial effort, Marlon Brando (who also stars) put his heart and soul into this unique Western tale of betrayal and revenge. The saga of its making and the aftermath is a story in itself.
As a director, if you deliver your film to a studio, and it is (allegedly) 5 hours long and your intended version will still be over 3, you’re just asking for studio interference. So it was with Paramount and ONE-EYED JACKS. Paramount trimmed it to 2 hours, 20 minutes, and this may be the rare case where the cutters seemed to have gotten it right. In the released version at 143 minutes, there are no loose ends, no unexplained scene juxtapositions and every shot is golden. Still, it would be fascinating to see some of that cut footage. (According to Martin Scorsese, who helped in a restoration, it has been lost.)
During the making of ONE-EYED JACKS, Brando over-shot and went over-budget. This we know. And maybe it wasn’t necessary to keep the entire cast and crew waiting, just hanging around, for the waves to be just right for that one shot along the beach in Monterey, California. I guess you have to wait for Method actors to do their thing, whether in front or behind the camera. But marking time is an important element in ONE-EYED JACKS. After all, this is a tale of revenge and one must wait until the time is right.
In a crucial early scene, Brando’s “Kid” waits (in vain) for the return of Karl Malden’s “Dad” Longworth to rescue him from the approaching Federales with a fresh horse. He waits again to knock off a bank, delayed a day because of the local holiday. He bides his time on his reunion with Longworth, now his betrayer, in order to size up and fool his opponent. (“If I was still sore, we would have been splattering each other all over the front yard”). When time for the showdown does arrive, Dad has other ideas and cripples Kid’s shooting hand with a rifle butt. Now, we must wait for the rehabilitation. (Much to the chagrin of his two partners, including the marvelous Ben Johnson.) When Kid returns and is captured, it seems that the only thing left to wait for…. is Hanging Day.
While it’s true that the Method originally grew out of the stage, Elia Kazan brought it outside; to the docks on the NY waterfront and to the fields of Salinas of Steinbeck’s northern California. With the help of Charles Lang’s gorgeous Vistavision color cinematography on ONE-EYED JACKS, Brando brings it to the arid mountains near Sonora, Mexico and to the Big Sur beachfront on the California coast. Both the exterior and interior scenes bristle with dramatic intensity. Oft-imitated lines of dialogue abound.
Brando had learned well how movies could work. It was not hubris that brought this one down. Just over-sized talent and a far-reaching ambition. So self-aware was Brando at the time, that ONE-EYED JACKS abounds with references to his own narcissism. He knew quite well where his persona stood with audiences and how to exploit it. The killer smile and the brooding intensity. And how the honesty in the technique would translate to a work of truth. There are jokes about getting fat (even his first appearance features one banana too many), yet there are those skin-tight pants tied along the sides that seem to say, “How do you like the way I fill these out?”
The decision to have all the Mexican characters speak appropriately in Spanish (with no subtitles) not only lends authenticity, but displays Brando’s deep respect for indigenous people and people of color.
If Brando’s accomplishment is under-appreciated, it is partly because nobody (including Brando) expected the film to be this good. It didn’t do well on its initial release (especially related to its exorbitant budget), further burying it in the public’s memory. To the day he died, Brando’s disappointments with the film weighed far more heavily on his mind than its successes. (In his 1985 interview with Connie Chung, he refers to it as his “cowboy movie”). Brando’s disdain for the business and waning interest in his own contributions can be traced back to his experience with this film. Such a pity.
YOJIMBO (Akira Kurosawa)
If there were no YOJIMBO, would there be a Quentin Tarantino, as we know him? It was YOJIMBO that begat A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and the Sergio Leone cult that followed, of which Tarantino is the most notable member. In YOJIMBO, we have Kurosawa’s genre-bending, the sudden, explicit well-staged acts of violence, the over-the-top, sometimes cartoonish characters and the jangly off-kilter music score. Sound familiar?
Kurosawa had first paid homage to the Western seven years before, with THE SEVEN SAMURAI. But YOJIMBO was a new experiment, taking things in new directions. The result was probably the best damn Samurai Western ever. It has been copied, borrowed from and referenced ever since. And it is still as fresh as ever. Toshiro Mifune is simply amazing, as well as the best screen hero to ever get the shit beat out of him.
BLAST OF SILENCE (Allen Baron)
3 days in the life of a hit man doing his job in NYC, when things get complicated. This low-budget gem written, directed and starring Allen Baron still impresses today. Baron structured his script with a knowing nod to the noir traditions that preceded it. There’s an ominous air of impending fate hanging over the proceedings, as God’s original lonely man wanders the streets of the big city at Christmastime. Our hero doesn’t speak much, but his thoughts are shared and commented on through the more articulate narration by the gravel-voiced Lionel Stander, an inspired choice.
The acting is more than adequate, especially by Larry Tucker as the slimy “Ralph”. Tucker would later connect with Paul Mazursky for some of Mazursky’s early classics. The stark B&W photography makes BLAST OF SILENCE like a time capsule of Manhattan in the Kennedy era. There are the shop windows near Rockefeller Center, the jazz clubs of the Village, and the griminess of the waterfront.
Despite the low budget, Baron is able to generate some real tension as the plight of our existential hero comes to its conclusion. The final scenes were shot during Hurricane Donna, the only hurricane to hit to hit the entire east coast, from Connecticut to Florida. Baron went on to do more features and much television work. Judging from BLAST OF SILENCE, one has to wonder….”How come we never heard of him?”
JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG (Stanley Kramer)
Stanley Kramer enjoyed much commercial and critical success throughout his career, but the ensuing years have seen his status diminish. Fairly or not, this is probably due to the acceptance of the auteur theory in judging the value of all things cinematic. One of the key tenets of the theory is that a director shows a consistent artistic personality. The more obvious consistencies the better. (Hitchcock and Hawks are the prime examples.) This should never be the only criteria, of course. Otherwise, you have an entire country regarding Jerry Lewis as a genius. I, myself find Kramer lacking in this department, but the same goes for William Wyler, whom I adore. My issues with Kramer are more with his often over-reaching, broad brushstrokes and subtle audience-pandering.
Kramer, (even as a producer, before directing his own projects), often chose to tackle social issues (racial inequality, cultural intolerance.) His films were labeled “message pictures”. Much to his credit, Kramer often chose Spencer Tracy to provide the perfect voice of reason.
So what bigger boiling pot to jump into than the fact-based drama of the 1948 trial of four Nazi judges accused of crimes against humanity? Once again, Spencer Tracy is the calming presence, this time as the head of the tribunal in charge of rendering final judgement. As with many actors under Kramer’s appreciative guidance, there are stand-out performances. Maximilian Schell won a much-deserved Oscar as the counsel for the defense. Judy Garland is damn near perfect. And Montgomery Clift simply astonishes in yet another of one of his post-accident performances. Burt Lancaster rounds it out as the perfect choice for the tragic man of conscience.
JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG is a 3-hr. movie, and it is to Abby Mann’s credit that he adapted his teleplay so that the many moral questions raised are evenly brought up, lest the weight of these issues become simply overwhelming.
So you might ask after all this praise, why not include JUDGEMENT in this collection as an Essential? Well, because cinema is cinema. And while this film may linger in the mind long after others have failed, and I recommend it for countless stimulating conversations, it is simply less due to its cinematic values than for the individual performances.
MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (Cy Endfield)
A giant crab! Giant bees! A giant chicken-like thing! For a guy who was barely 8 years old (me at the time), seeing this movie one Saturday afternoon at the Victory Theater in Milwaukie, Oregon was like having a cinema bombshell dropped on you. From the opening credits with the crashing waves and Bernard Herrmann’s crashing cymbals to the final battle with the giant sea snail-like thing, it just didn’t get any cooler. Ray Harryhausen’s special effects still beat the crap out of most of today’s CGI.
WEST SIDE STORY (Jerome Robbins & Robert Wise)
You may have noticed a definite absence of musicals in this collection of great films. This is not an oversight. Just a reflection of the objective nature of this website. Musicals are just not my thing. But the music in WEST SIDE STORY is just not like the music in any other musical. Leonard Bernstein’s score simply towers over the others. It’s in a class by itself.
The decision to have a seasoned director share credit with the choreographer was unprecedented and a wise move (no pun intended). Just the right blend of stylization and location shooting sets the right tone. Oh, and Elvis Presley was seriously considered originally for the role of Tony. Ponder that.
BRITISH “KITCHEN SINK” DRAMAS
It began on the London stage with John Osborne and his “angry young man” and the subsequent film (see LOOK BACK IN ANGER from 1959). Soon British cinema had a “new wave” of its own. In the early 60’s, there appeared several excellent films by new film-makers focusing mostly on the working class. Directors like Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger, and Tony Richardson. New faces like Albert Finney and Richard Harris. The films were called “kitchen sink” dramas since they always seemed to feature at least one scene in a dreary kitchen.
For British audiences, these films were a marked (and mostly welcome) change from the staid period dramas and tired comedies that the major studios were serving up. Outside of the UK, they were truly like foreign films, focusing as they did on uniquely British idioms and issues of class. What distinguished them was their authenticity and consistently high level of quality. Important to the growth of British cinema, they are still well worth watching today.
Notable titles are SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING, THE ENTERTAINER, LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE RUNNER, THIS SPORTING LIFE, A TASTE OF HONEY and BILLY LIAR.