Posts Tagged ‘films’

A bit of self-indulgent nostalgia about films

As yet another year starts winding down to an end, I, at my age, can’t help feeling nostalgic. Indeed, at my age, I can’t help feeling nostalgic at any time of the year: everything nowadays reminds me of something from the past. Except for modern films. They don’t remind me of the past at all – but they do remind me how good films used to be.

And I don’t mean arthouse movies, or films you really have to go out of your way to see: I’m sure there are a few nuggets to be found if one looks hard enough.  I mean mainstream films that are likely to come to my local cinema.

Last night, I watched on DVD a film from the mid-70s – One Flew Over the Cuckoos’ Nest. I can’t remember the last time I saw this film, but I can certainly remember the first. I had just turned 16, and was in my final year at school, just outside Glasgow. My father had obtained a new post in Lancashire, and my parents had decided to go down there for a week in search of a place to live. However, with my final year examinations coming up, it was out of the question for me to miss school: so I was left home alone. I have no idea how legal that was either then or now, but I didn’t mind in the slightest. A week on my own, doing as I pleased, seemed like heaven to me.

So that Saturday afternoon, I wandered around a wet Glasgow city centre, looking for a film to see. It had to be an X-rated film, because, after all, I was an adult now … at least, I could easily pass for 18. Not that I wanted to watch a porn film, as such: I knew which cinemas specialised in porn films, and, adult or not, would have been far too embarrassed to be seen queuing at those places – although what those cinemas in those days were allowed to show was no doubt very mild and innocent compared to what now seems acceptable even in mainstream cinema. That is not to say, of course, that I would have objected to a quick artistic flash, perhaps; but what I really wanted to see was a grown-up  film – a drama aimed at a grown-up audience: I disdained the very idea of watching some kiddies’ movie..

And I remember still that after walking round the city centre cinemas, my short-list consisted of Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (with Al Pacino), and Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to go round the cinemas now and be presented with a choice of such quality? But let us not digress. On the toss of a coin, I went to see One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It was an adult film – in the sense that it was a drama that was aimed at grown-ups, and demanded much of its audience.

A few months afterwards, my parents had moved down to Lancashire, and I was living in a students’ hall of residence on Sauchiehall Street, in the centre of Glasgow. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was one of the big films of the year, and all my fellow students with whom I associated – most about a couple of years older than me – had seen it. And the discussions we used to have about it in each others’ rooms, or around a few beers in the pub! (Yes – I can admit now I was an under-aged drinker…) Never mind Hamlet – was Randall Patrick McMurphy really mad, or was he merely pretending to be? Did he really care for the other inmates, or was he just out for himself? Did he have a therapeutic effect on the others? Did Nurse Ratched actually understand Billy better than McMurphy did? Why did McMurphy not escape when he had the opportunity? And so on. I won’t pretend these discussions were particularly profound or in-depth, but the very fact that  we could come out of a film and have so many issues to discuss does bespeak a certain degree of complexity in the film. I wonder what kids have to discuss nowadays affter a showing of the latest biggest and baddest action-adventure-sciencefiction-fantasy-specialeffects-extravaganza. The sort of thing, in other words, which, even had they existed in my time, we would have disdained as being “kiddies’ movies”.

Watching this film again inevitably brought back a great many memories, but, beyond the nostalgia, I was reminded once again how good it is as a film. Of course, it would have no chance of being made these days. Several individual scenes last ten or more minutes at a time – with no fancy camerawork or anything like that, but focussing merely on people as they talk, and as they react to each other: for that, after all, is the substance of drama. Right at the very start of the film there is a scene lasting nearly ten minutes of two people – McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) and the head of the psychiatric hospital – just speaking to each other. Nowadays, even a scene lasting a mere two minutes would be considered overlong, and likely to tax the attention span of its no doubt sophisticated audience.

The film itself is set almost entirely within a psychiatric ward, and most of the principal characters are inmates. The drama as it unfolds involves electric shock treatment, a particularly nasty suicide, frontal lobotomy, and euthanasia – not exactly feelgood stuff. And the laughter that is encouraged at the behaviour of some of the inmates would certainly be considered non-PC these days, especially by those who appear not to realise that laughter does not necessarily imply denigration: I cannot think of any other film in which psychiatric patients are presented as humans, as individuals; and where, even as we laugh, we feel for them both sympathy and empathy. We come, indeed, to like them as people.

Milos Forman’s  expert and unobtrusive direction strikes a path through very difficult territory without putting a foot wrong, and, while Jack Nicholson is obviously the star of the film – this was back in the days before he would turn up on set merely to roll his eyes, do his Jack-the-Lad routine, and collect the cheque … mind you, when you are playing merely in big-budget kiddies’ movies like the Batman films, what else can you do? – this is by no means a star vehicle. It’s an ensemble piece and the performances of Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, of Brad  Dourif, Danny de Vito, Cristopher Lloyd, Sydney Lassick, William Redfield, etc. as the immates, are all outstanding. Add to that an intelligent and perceptive script (adapted from what I am led to believe is a pretty mediocre novel – though I could be wrong on that), and the cinematic experience on offer makes, even on repeated viewing, a huge emotional impact. It made me feel very nostalgic indeed for the days when one could just wander into town and have a choice between films of such quality as this and Dog Day Afternoon.

I didn’t realise then that that era in the mid- to late- 70s, when I first became a student, was the fag-end of what, in retrospect, we may think of as a sort of golden era for mainstream Hollywood films. For soon, along came the Star Wars films and Spielberg, and cinema became not just juvenilised, but infantilised. Oh well – I still have my memories!

Novels from films?

We are all accustomed to works in one medium adapted to another. Novels are often dramatised as plays, as, increasingly nowadays, are films. Films themselves are frequently adapted from novels and plays. Operas plunder from wherever they can. None of this raises eyebrows. We sometimes want the adaptation to be as faithful as possible to their sources (e.g. the various BBC adaptations of classic 19th century novels) – to such an extent indeed that if adaptations diverge even slightly from the material on which they are based, aficionados of the originals can become quite irate; and at other times, we can accept that the original material was but the starting point for the creation of something new (Verdi’s Otello, Kurosawa’s Ran, etc.) But one thing we never see is the adaptation of a film into a novel. I wonder why that is.

hammerbookIt wasn’t, admittedly, always like this. In the days before DVD Blu-Rays – in the days even before VHS video recorders – “novelisations” of films, usually cult films, were quite popular, as that was the nearest fans could come to owning the film. Most of the writing was hack work, and, although I may be very wrong here, I doubt there was much in any of them of any great literary interest. But if it is possible to create significant works of art in one medium based on works in another (the examples I gave earlier – Verdi’s Otello, Kurosawa’s Ran – can be cited again in this context), there should really be no reason why we should not have novels of high literary quality based on films. Unless, of course, we think of cinema as an art so inferior that it does not have the potential to engender works of artistic merit in other forms.

So can it be possible? Could a talented novelist write novels of significant artistic merit based on, say, La Règle du Jeu, or Citizen Kane, or  Sullivan’s Travels, or Persona? If so, why don’t they already do this? And if not, why not?

I think the answer comes down to a residual snobbery in these matters. We may pay lip service to cinema as an art form, but while we think it perfectly acceptable for films to be based on novels, we feel the novel to be so much more elevated a form of art than mere film that we cannot imagine it the other way round.

I’d like to see it tried, at least. Indeed, if I had any talent as a novelist I’d have a go myself!

The Peter Cushing centenary

As a keen fan of Hammer horror films, I could not let the opportunity pass to pay a tribute to Peter Cushing on his centenary. Actually, his centenary was yesterday, and I should have written something last night, but I decided instead to pour myself a good whisky, sit back, and watch the great man in The Gorgon.

Peter Cushing and Barbara Shelley in "The Gorgon"

Peter Cushing and Barbara Shelley in “The Gorgon”

Curious film, The Gorgon. Obviously, they were looking for a horror theme a bit different from the usual fare of Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy and the Werewolf, and, perhaps rather bizarrely, hit upon the Greek myth of the Gorgon, the creature who had live snakes instead of hair, and the sight of whom turned people into stone. Not too terrifying a premise, admittedly, but director Terence Fisher, cameraman Michael Reed, set designer Bernard Robinson and composer James Bernard all combined their considerable talents to give the film a gorgeous romantic gloss. Lyricism is not a quality we tend to associate with horror films –a t least, not nowadays – but there is a haunting dreamlike lyricism to this (as some of the screen-shots here will testify) that really is quite unlike anything I have seen in any other film.

Peter Cushing’s role – as the guilt-ridden doctor in love with his assistant Carla, and trying desperately to protect her – is badly under-written (screenwriter John Gilling complained about the changes made to his original script, claiming that but for these changes, it “might have been a very good movie”), but, as ever, Cushing makes more out of the role that one could think possible. But he had a habit of doing that. Because he made most of his career in horror films, non-aficionados of the genre often seem not to realise what a truly fine actor he was. In film after film, he projected elements that, judging from the script alone, simply weren’t there. And the range too is surprising: from the kindly but authoritative presence as van Helsing, to the cold and austere Sherlock Holmes, to the gentle and persecuted old man in Tales From the Crypt, to the murdering religious fanatic in Twins of Evil. Putting my personal taste aside, it is doubtful that any of these films would be ranked alongside La Grande Illusion or Citizen Kane, but that does not detract from the quality of the performances. In Twins of Evil, for instance, he actually makes the religious fanatic Gustav Weil appear, ultimately, a sympathetic figure, as the realisation of the true nature of his acts begins to dawn upon him. Cushing projects here a depth of character that one had no right to expect given the premise and the script.

Perhaps the centrepiece of Cushing’s performances are the five Frankenstein films he made with director Terence Fisher –

Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein

Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein

The Curse of Frankenstein, The Revenge of Frankenstein, Frankenstein Created Woman (a personal favourite of Martin Scorsese’s, apparently), Frankenstein Must be Destroyed (surely amongst the finest of all gothic films) and Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell. (The Evil of Frankenstein was directed by Freddie Francis, and is not really part of this series.) These films are no mere series of worn-out sequels in a tired franchise; each of these films re-thinks the premise of the original, and provides new and intelligent variations. Taken together, I really do think they are among the finest achievements of British cinema, irrespective of genre. And at the centre of these films are the performances of Peter Cushing: his depiction of the increasingly monomaniac and unhinged Frankenstein is breathtaking.

And yet, from all accounts, this stalwart of horror films was in real life the warmest and kindest of people. We all speak well of the dead – especially on their centenary – but those who knew him and worked with him all invariably break into a loving smile when remembering the man. He was a much-loved resident of the seaside town of Whitstable, which has been warmly celebrating his centenary. There is even a beauty spot on the beach that has been named Cushing’s View.

There’s not much to be said about the man that hasn’t been said already. He was a part of my childhood, and of my growing up, and now, for that reason (though not only for that reason), I would like to offer my own tribute and thanks to one of the finest of all screen actors.

( I should like to point out that, it just so happens, today is the birthday of that other great stalwart of hammer Horror films, Christopher Lee. Happy birthday, Sir Chris – but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait another nine years for your centenary celebrations!)

The canons of cinema

Canons to right of them,
Canons to left of them,
Canons in front of them
Volley’d and thunder’d …

If a canon may be defined as a consensus of the cognoscenti – and I really don’t know how else it may be defined – then the BFI (British Film Institute) poll of film critics and of directors, carried out every decade, and the latest of which was published only last week, has a greater claim than most of being definitive.

There are those, of course, who question why we should need a canon anyway: aren’t our own tastes sufficient? Well, yes, up to a point: no canon, after all, is going to alter our individual tastes. I am not going to start liking Vertigo – a film that I have long disliked – just because it now tops this latest list; and neither am I going to stop loving those favourite films of mine that didn’t make it. But nonetheless, a concept of a canon is, I think, important in any field of activity in which we value excellence, for the simple reason that only those titles that belong to the canon have any chance of surviving into the future. Far too many films have been made over the years for them all to be available; and even if they were all to be available, it is not reasonable to expect even the most devoted of cineastes to view every one of them. What we choose to view from the past is determined by their canonical status: I am, after all, unlikely to see some forgotten film from the 1930s, for the very reason that is forgotten. Our personal canons are, inevitably, subsets of a wider canon.

For that matter, this BFI list too is a subset of a wider canon: most of us, I imagine, can think of films of the highest quality that didn’t make this Top 50 list. Fifty really is too small a number: cinema is a relatively new art form – it has been around now for only slightly over a century – yet, already, the number of films made over these hundred or so years that are of the highest artistic quality really is quite staggering. Yes, it is true that there is also much – possibly the vast majority – that is utter rubbish; but even after applying the most stringent of filters, I find myself quite astonished by the sheer number of films that, for a bewildering diversity of reasons, seem to me to bear the mark of greatness.

Inevitably, when speaking of excellence – whether with films or with anything else –  we hear the glib comment that “it’s all a matter of personal opinion”. Well, our personal opinion is a matter of personal opinion, certainly, but that’s mere tautology: excellence, if we are to believe in that concept at all, seems to me not a matter of personal opinion at all, but of considered judgement. While it is true that judgement, even considered judgement, may vary, it varies considerably less erratically or unpredictably than does personal opinion. That a consensus exists at all, and that such a consensus proves to be quite stable over time, indicate a certain stability in critical judgement; and whether or not my personal judgement corresponds with the consensus is frankly irrelevant: whether we agree or not with the choices – and there are certainly many that I personally would take issue with – the BFI lists over the decades embody what we collectively understand as “excellence”.

But with that out of the way, I do find the current list to be rather curious. That’s personally speaking, of course. After some five decades, Citizen Kane – a film I picked as one of my personal top ten – is no longer at the top of the list: it has been replaced by Hitchcock’s Vertigo, a film whose reputation frankly puzzles me. It’s not that I dislike Hitchcock: indeed, he has made some of my favourite films – The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Shadow of a Doubt, and that dazzlingly inventive and influential addition to the horror genrePsycho. But, while he was unquestionably masterly with individual sequences, he all too often, I feel, misjudged the pacing, or long-term effects. I cannot, for instance, see any reason to introduce that scene in North by North-West after the United Nations murder in which a gathering of senior FBI agents assures us that they are aware of the innocence of the Cary Grant character: up to that point, the film has been superb, deftly balancing suspense with comedy, but this scene, quite apart from introducing into the proceedings a disruptive shift in narrative perspective, helps dissipate tension at the very point where there should ideally have been a few more turns of the screw. The reasoning behind this directorial decision to include this scene seems to me quite incomprehensible. And neither do I understand why Hitchcock then proceeds to slow the pace down in the sequence on the train, largely substituting glamour and romance for menace or suspense. Of course, there are fine sequences afterwards – the famous scene with the crop duster, for instance – but the tension built up so beautifully in the earlier part of the film seems to me, to a great extent, to have disappeared. And this can only be put down to poor long-term planning.

Similarly with Vertigo. Admirers of the film tell me it is an incisive study of obsession, but, despite several viewings, I really cannot see it as such: merely to show the protagonist (played by James Stewart) as obsessed does not amount to an exploration of the nature of obsession. But maybe I am missing something on that front, so I’ll let that pass: what is more serious, though, is Hitchcock’s poor long-term planning. As is well-known, the twist in the plot is given away considerably before the end of the film: this has been justified to me on the grounds that by doing so, Hitchcock shifts the focus of interest from “what happens next” to “why it happens next”; but if this had indeed been Hitchcock’s intention, why set it up as a mystery in the first place? Shifting the audience’s focus of attention so radically at so late a stage in the proceedings merely disrupts the narrative momentum; and, further, it requires a sudden change in narrative perspective (from Jimmy Stewart’s perspective to Kim Novak’s) that, no matter how often I see the film, merely jars. And as for the ending – well, I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it, but really, there is nothing to spoil: far from resolving anything, it is merely arbitrary, and, frankly, rather silly.

Well, my opinion on this matter is clearly out of step with the “consensus of the cognoscenti” I had mentioned earlier, but there it is: Hitchcock, at his best, certainly made very entertaining films, but I do not see in any of them the substance or the depth that his admirers seem to see. Substance and depth are not always required for cinematic excellence, of course: there is little of either in Singin’ in the Rain, say, or in Casablanca, to name but two films that are rarely far from my own personal Top Ten: but when admirers cite such qualities in his films, and, further, put forward the presence of these qualities as reasons for rating these films so highly, then my own failure to find these qualities inevitably affects my own critical judgement.

The film that Vertigo has replaced, Citizen Kane, is rarely included nowadays in personal Top Ten choices for the rather curious reason that it is too predictable a choice, and, hence, rather boring. Well, I include it in mine, because, predictable though the choice may be, I personally love it. All too often, it is regarded merely as a bag of cinematic tricks: it is conceded that it has contributed much to cinematic technique, but it is, I often hear, dramatically uninteresting, and even shallow. I do not understand such criticism at all. It is a film that depicts and explores personal failure: a rich man dies at the start of the film, surrounded by vast wealth, but the only people who are near him at the point of death are those who are paid to be there: this is a failure by any human standard. The rest of the film then explores the nature of this failure. First of all, a brilliant pastiche of a newsreel footage tells us “what happens next”, thus removing from the very start any curiosity on the audience’s part on this issue; and it proceeds then to focus, from a multiplicity of overlapping viewpoints and with a narrative and dramatic panache that still leaves me breathless with excitement, the reasons behind the human failure. That so potent a theme, explored with such intelligence and insight, can be seen as dramatically uninteresting or even “shallow”, leaves me as puzzled as does the often uninhibited praise awarded to Vertigo.  But at least I’m in step with critical consensus on this film: second place in the list is hardly a fall from grace.

Looking through the other films in the Top Fifty, there are several individual observations I could offer: I’ll refrain from commenting on 2001 – A Space Odyssey, since, as I have said often enough, I find it difficult to connect with the science fiction genre; I find myself disappointed that John Ford, one of my favourite directors, should be best known for what seems to me one of his least successful films (The Searchers); and so on. And as ever, there are many films I love deeply that aren’t in here. But one shouldn’t complain too much: while this list may, as I think, embody what we collectively understand to be cinematic excellence, it would be foolish to imagine that a list so short can in any way be exhaustive. After all, if you don’t like any particular list, you could always make up your own!

No – don’t worry! – I am not going to compile a boring list of my favourite films. But if I did, I suspect that a sizable chunk of it would consist of classic Hollywood films – films from the 30s, 40s, and 50s. The Maltese Falcon, Singin’ in the Rain, Frankenstein, The Lost Weekend, My Darling Clementine, To Be Or Not To Be, Casablanca, The Big Heat, Shane, Sullivan’s Travels, screwball comedies, Jimmy Cagney gangster movies, the Marx Brothers, Laurel  & Hardy … These were the films I grew up with, and it seems to me that, for a while at least, cinema was a form that was both extremely popular, and also of considerable artistic merit – a rare and possibly unique combination. Hollywood in these decades really did produce a popular art. There was, I think, a resurgence in Hollywood films in the late 60s and early-to-mid 70s, with films such as The Wild Bunch, the two Godfather films, The Last Detail, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Chinatown, etc. In a sense, this was my era: if the classic Hollywood films were the ones I grew up watched on television, these were the films I used to go to see in the cinema. But this resurgence didn’t last long: some time in the mid-to-late 70s, Steven Spielberg realised that there was a vast potential audience out there which wasn’t interested in serious drama, but wanted spectacle: and so, he gave them spectacle – essentially children’s movies given the big budget treatment. The phenomenal success of the Star Wars films sealed the trend, and cinema became juvenilised; some may even say “infantilised”. And I don’t think there’s any recovery in sight yet. Of course, once in a while an intelligent and absorbing drama does get made (I particularly enjoyed About Schmidt, for instance), but one has to do an awful lot of hunting around to come across these; and, more importantly, such films are not widely distributed: About Schmidt, for instance, certainly did not make it to my local cinemas.

How many of those treasured films from the past, if made today (assuming that they could be made today) would receive widespread release? Not too many, I suspect.

Recently, my wife and I watched on DVD Sunday, Bloody Sunday, a British film from 1971 directed by John Schlesinger, starring Glenda Jackson and Peter Finch, and boasting a script by Penelope Gilliatt of tremendous intelligence and subtlety: it is a challenging and intricate adult drama (by “adult drama”, I mean a drama for grown-ups, and not pornography: isn’t it strange what “adult” has come to mean these days?), and I couldn’t help thinking that this film, at the time, was released into the mainstream: it wasn’t just an art-house feature. For such a film to be released so widely now would be unthinkable: we have yet to recover from the juvenilisation of cinema that came with Spielberg & co. And yet, the very fact that a film as demanding as this was, once upon a time, made for a mainstream audience is indicative of how ambitious, at least in artistic terms, cinema was not so very long ago.

Perhaps list such as the BFI’s – whatever one’s personal view of the choices – could help rekindle interest in cinema as an art form. For that it what it is. For what else could one call a form that could deliver works such as The Third Man, Wild Strawberries, La Grande Illusion, Sunset Boulevard? Are works of this stature really inferior in terms of artistic quality to, say, the major plays and novels of the 20th century? The decline that I perceive in cinema is indeed sad, but, as someone-or-other once said, though much is taken, much remains. And if cinema is once again to attain the artistic levels that it had once attained, then consideration of its past glories – the canon, in other words – may not be a bad place to start.

Even though picking Vertigo as the best film ever is damn odd!

Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence.

– from “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats

My favourite films

Some time ago, I posted a list of my favourite novels. And, ever since, I know that many of you have been waiting with bated breath to find out my favourite ten films. I have, indeed, been inundated – inundated – with e-mails to that effect: “Now that you have let us know your favourite novels, please, please,” they plead, “please let us know your favourite films.”

Well, actually, no. I lie. But since it is Christmas, let us indulge ourselves.  Here they are, the Argumentative Old Git’s top ten favourite films:

City Lights (1931):

People keep telling me that Chaplin wasn’t funny. If that is so, I don’t know what the audience was laughing at when I saw this film in the cinema: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cinema audience laugh so much.

The film itself is pure alchemy. Chaplin takes a hackneyed tale, and, by some magic beyond analysis, turns it into pure gold. That ending shouldn’t work, but it does. Like Dickens (with whom he shares much in terms of moral and artistic values), Chaplin is often accused of sentimentality; but, again like Dickens, if he hadn’t risked being sentimental , he wouldn’t have been able to create scenes as ineffably beautiful and moving as the finale of City Lights.

Sons of the Desert  (1933):

It’s hard to believe that entire generations have grown up now without having seen a single Laurel & Hardy film. There has been no end of analysis into just what it is about these characters that makeS them so funny, and so appealing, but as with all things wonderful, there are aspects that are beyond any analysis. Ollie is so very pompous and self-important, and yet we love him. Why? Who knows! Stan is completely and utterly vacant, and yet we don’t look down upon him, or regard him in a patronising manner, or feel ourselves superior in any way. Why? Again – who knows!

The boys were generally at their best in the short films, but occasionally, as in Way Out West and in this, their magic remained intact for feature films also. The story is simple, but what they make out of it is, for me, a lasting joy. No matter how down I may happen to feel, Stan and Ollie cheer me up. I don’t think I feel such deep affection for any other fictional character, either in cinema or in any other medium.

A Night at the Opera (1935)

Alongside Chaplin and Stan & Ollie, the Marx Brothers form the third of that select group that, for me, defineS the gold standard in comedy.

The general consensus of opinion amongst Marxists is that the boys were at their undiluted best in the Paramount films, and that after they moved to MGM, their anarchic comedy was watered down by romantic subplots, musical interludes, etc. There is certainly a great deal of truth in this, but it is also true that the first two films they made for MGM, A Night at the Opera and A Day at the Races,  not only have better production values than the Paramount films, but also contain much of their finest material.

Yes, the romantic and musical interludes do slow things down a bit, but speaking personally, I do find a certain period charm to them. Most importantly, they do not get in the way of the comedy. Right from the opening scene in the restaurant, to the evergreen contract-signing scene and the equally evergreen cabin scene, right up to the finale  – one of the very best, involving the sabotage of Il Trovatore – just thinking back on this makes me break out into a broad grin.

Citizen Kane(1941)

Sometimes, something can be very great even though everyone says so. Except, perhaps, no-one says so any more about Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane: that’s one of those pieces of received wisdom that we, eager to be thought of as independent in our thought, steer away from.

This film is sometimes criticised for being merely a bag of tricks. But the word “merely” is misapplied. It is a bag of tricks, certainly, but the tricks are almost invariably there to serve a purpose: frequently, they aid the narrative flow rather than otherwise. Take, for instance, that passage where Kane signs up all the top journalists from a rival newspaper: we close in on a group photograph, see a flash on the screen, and then, with one of the most daring cuts I have seen, we pull back out of the picture as the picture comes to life – that cut covering two whole years. Flashy? Yes. But could the story have been told more economically, and with such clarity?

And it’s like this throughout – the tricks serving the narrative and the drama rather than getting in their way. And the drama is engrossing: it is about the betrayal of promise; of youthful idealism and dynamism overtaken by a profound sense of futility; and of the loneliness of old age, and a yearning for something that has been lost. Citizen Kane has all the complexity of a great novel.

Double Indemnity (1944)

I often think of Billy Wilder’s Double indemnity, The Lost Weekend and Sunset Boulevard as a sort of unofficial trilogy – three extremely dark films, each featuring at the centre a self-destructive protagonist. How did the Factory of Dreams ever produce films such as these? Double Indemnity, in particular, is a great favourite: it’s the archetypal film noir, and virtually defines that genre all by itself. There’s nothing I can say about this film that hasn’t been said a million times before: the script, the performances, the direction, the lighting – it is all absolute perfection, and even though I know virtually every shot and every line by heart, I still get a kick watching it, just to enter that world again. So let us just move on.

They Were Expendable(1945)

Lyricism isn’t often associated with action films. And yet, John Ford, known for action films – especially Westerns – was a poet of the cinema. Only he could make a film about the gunfight at the OK Corral and call it My Darling Clementine.

They Were Expendable was intended as a wartime flag-waver, and depicts thus marines in the early stages of the war against Japan. How typical of Ford that even when making a flag-waver, it is a defeat he focuses on. Among the stars of the film is John Wayne (although he essentially plays second fiddle here to Robert Montgomery). But there are no gung-ho heroics, or boys’ own adventure. Indeed, the focus isn’t even on the plotline as such: often, Ford is happy not to explain all the details of the plot. The focus is on people, all people, even those who appear fleetingly: the camera still lingers on their faces, on their expressions. When the radio announces that US are at war with Japan, Ford’s camera focuses not on the men, but on the faces of the female Japanese singers at the bar. Later, a young marine is shivering with fear, and when asked by his officer if he is cold, lets slip out that he is afraid: the commanding officer, Robert Montgomery, pauses for a while and tells the lad that he has no monopoly on fear before moving on. The boy never re-appears, but once again, the camera focuses on his face, and lingers.

What Ford depicts is heroism – not the sort of macho heroism we tend to associate with John Wayne films, but the everyday heroism of ordinary everyday people, people who know that they are expendable and who yet sacrifice themselves in the name of duty, of service. Time after time the camera captures haunting images that only a true poet can conjure up – an old man refuses to leave his house in the face of invasion, and sits quietly on his own on his front steps; a troop of ragged soldiers march into no destination in particular amidst the swirling dust. And, as surely as Renoir did in La Grande Illusion (which I may well have picked in my Top Ten on another day), Ford depicts the essential nobility and dignity of the human race, even in the face of the unthinkable. It is easy to be cynical of such a vision, but it is a vision we need to hold on to.

Seven Samurai (1954)

This is a heroic, tragic tale of epic dimensions – perhaps the closest cinema has come to the Homeric. The individual actions scenes, especially that final battle in the rain and the mud, are rightly legendary: they have been much imitated, but never equalled. The pacing of the narrative over three and a half hours is immaculate: Kurasawa knows exactly when and how and to what extent to raise or lower the tempo. Each individual scene is engrossing, and the shape of the broad narrative arc is nothing short of breathtaking.

Apu Trilogy (1955-59)

Three films, I know, but should be counted as one. This trilogy, directed by Satyajit Ray, are works of profound humanity, and I never fail to find them moving. I’ve written about these films quite recently on this blog, so let’s move on.

The Innocents(1961)

Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw can claim to be the finest example of the genre of the ghost story, and it has inspired not one, but two masterpieces – Benjamin Britten’s opera, and this film, directed by Jack Clayton. Once again, I have written about this recently on this blog, so let us move on to my final choice.

Fanny and Alexander (1982)

Ingmar Bergman had already announced that this was to be his last film, and he was determined to go out on a high – to put into a single work the best of himself, to create, as it were, a summary of all past achievements. The result could have been a hodge-podge, but it isn’t: it is magical, right from that hushed opening as the boy Alexander plays with his toy theatre, right through to that deeply enigmatic ending some five hours or so later. (And incidentally, I would recommend anyone watching this to get hold of the full television film – this film was intended specifically for television – rather than the abridged version released for cinema). The warmth of the Christmas party scenes, the sheer terror evoked at the death of the father, the austerity and bleaknesss of the scenes at the bishop’s house, the magic and fantasy that invades the film towards the end … all the disparate elements is handled with the skill and artistry of an absolute master. A worthy finale to one of the most brilliant of cinematic careers.

Looking back on Halliwell’s Film Guide

Back in the days when reference books had not yet been made more or less redundant by the internet, Halliwell’s Film Guide, and its companion volume, Halliwell’s Filmgoer’s Companion, were essential purchases for any self-respecting film buff. Of whom I was one. Or, at least, of whom I fancied myself one. If you wanted to know the director or cinematographer on any film, if you wanted to check who it was who composed the score for Sunset Boulevard or who wrote the script of Vertigo, Halliwell was the man to turn to.

But you got more than mere facts: Halliwell provided for each film a star rating, a brief synopsis, and a few brief – but extremely characterful – critical comments. And these critical comments, I remember, I used to find infuriating. How could he give three stars to a piece of dated Hollywood moonshine like Portrait of Jennie, but give only one to a masterpiece like Through a Glass Darkly? Why does no film made in the last 20 years or so get the maximum four-star rating? Why can he not appreciate the miracle that is Pather Panchali? Why is a film of the stature of  Tokyo Story not even listed? “Eccentric” seemed too mild a word under the circumstances.

Since his untimely death in 1989, Halliwell’s Film Guide, though still in existence, has been thoroughly revised by other hands. And the result, accurate and reliable as before, is also, no doubt, more reliable in its critical judgement, and covers some very important aspects of cinema that Halliwell had ignored simply because he didn’t care much for them. So far, so good. However, these later editions are also bland. True, Halliwell’s critical judgement, even then, was frequently infuriating, but what did shine through was a certain personality. The judgements, whether you agreed with them or not, were the judgement of someone who was happy to declare his personal tastes loud and clear, and who wasn’t prepared to bow merely to critical consensus. The latest version I flicked through read as if it were written by a committee. (Indeed, it probably was.) Although much has no doubt been gained, something rather precious, it seems to me, has been lost.

I am fortunate to have still a copy of the 7th edition of Halliwell’s Film Guide – the last that Leslie Halliwell had prepared before his death. These days, I find myself quite enchanted by it. I find myself delighted even by the things that used to infuriate me so all those years ago. I see once again the mere two stars awarded to Pather Panchali, and, this time, find myself thinking that two stars isn’t really too bad a rating given this isn’t his kind of film. I see the omission of Tokyo Story, and I chuckle to myself, thinking “Well, that’s Leslie Halliwell for you!” All shortcomings of critical judgement are excused as one would excuse the eccentricities of a favourite uncle. And above all, I find myself enjoying Halliwell’s quirky personality: here is a man who clearly has a deep affection for films, and when he writes about what he loves, the sense of delight he communicates is so infectious that I find it hard not to take delight in his delight.

Halliwell loved old Hollywood. He loved the artifice of these films, the glossy production values, the moonshine, the splendid black and white romanticism. I remember him saying once that the real Paris was never as romantic as the Paris of the MGM sets, and every time I visit the city, I can’t help thinking how right he was. He loved the kind of film that I, as a keen watcher of films on television some thirty or forty years ago, grew up with – the classic Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s. And 1950s as well, although, no doubt, Halliwell would have felt that the rot was beginning to set in even then.

However, the past, as they say, is a foreign country, and, though now only in my early 50s (which I am assured isn’t too old really), I frequently find myself alarmed by how deeply even the recent past appears to be buried. I have, I suppose, long since given up being shocked that children nowadays grow up without ever having watched a Laurel and Hardy film; that people who would consider themselves as “being into movies” have quite frequently not even heard of, let alone seen, The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca or Double Indemnity; that most people would not be able even to name a single one of Jimmy Cagney’s gangster films – or, indeed, even know who Jimmy Cagney was. Well, I suppose these films that I love so much have all had their day. Nonetheless, these are my films: these are the films that I grew up with. Not only do I not see anything reprehensible about looking back in affection, keeping in touch with one’s past seems to me a positive benefit: contrary to received wisdom that tells us it is wrong “to live in the past” – whatever that is supposed to mean – honouring the past and respecting the present seem to me mutually enhancing rather than mutually exclusive.

I suppose part of the reason I enjoy flicking through Halliwell’s Film Guide is that he celebrates these old Hollywood films with such unabashed joy. And he celebrates them on their own terms: he doesn’t feel the need to make excuses for them. Yes, it is true that much of his critical judgement may be – let us say – “eccentric”, but there are other times when he hits the nail squarely on the head. Here, for instance, is his comment on Yankee Doodle Dandy:

Outstanding showbiz biopic, with unassuming but effective production, deft patriotic backdrops and a marvellous, strutting, magnetic star performance.

Has Cagney’s screen presence ever been so accurately captured in just a few words? Or here is Halliwell again, on John Ford’s film adaptation of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:

A superb film that could scarcely be improved upon … Acting, photography, direction combine to make this an unforgettable experience, a  poem of a film.

Indeed. How good to see someone lavish such deserved praise on this wonderful work. And how good it is to see four stars awarded to Preston Sturges’ Miracle at Morgan’s Creek – a film barely known about these days. (Here in the UK, you can’t even get it on DVD. Mind you, you can’t even get Ernest Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be on DVD either!)

As for the more recent films that I in my late teens and early twenties thought were masterpieces, Halliwell’s judgement often seems to prove more astute than it had seemed at the time. After all, nothing dates quite so quickly and quite so badly as cutting edge relevance.

One should mention also Halliwell’s terse and often witty synopses. His one line summary of Gone With the Wind , for instance, can hardly be improved upon:

An egotistic Southern girl survives the Civil War but finally loses the only man she cares for.

Now, what more can there be to say about this film?

I am pleased to see there’s a site devoted to Leslie Halliwell. Warmly recommended – especially to anyone who has an affection for old Hollywood films.