So many lists of best films … some by directors“ Spielberg and Scorsese “ others by categories “ best westerns or best film noirs, and still others from Sight and Sound or Cahiers du Cinema. The following reviews represent films I chose to write about, as much to learn them as to celebrate them and to share with you. I have overlooked films I love “ Renoir’s, Kubrick’s, and Fellini’s -- or have been written about well by others“ who needs another on Citizen Kane? If you go ahead and watch some of these films, I’d be delighted. In these times of drought and drenching, these films have made me happy.
La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928), director Carl Dreyer, makes most lists, even some top ten. It dramatizes Joan's treatment by the English, who captured, judged, and executed her. The charges included dressing like a man, blaspheming, carrying out her king’s orders, and causing the deaths of English soldiers. The film's interest is not in the charges but in Joan's fortitude withstanding torture and humiliation and the righteous glee of her tormentors.
Dreyer tells the story with the faces of the participants in stark, unadorned close-up, from the stern clerics and judges who learnedly harangue her, to the jolly jailers who mock her. Dreyer’s catalog of faces provides a Dantean journey through the inferno of ignorance and cruelty -- faces borrowed from iconographic images of the tormenting of Christ and from today’s news.
At the center is the face of Joan -- Renée Jeanne Falconetti, a stage actress Dreyer insisted upon. Joan is 19 years old, touched by God's hand, and innocent of the evil confronting her. Falconetti’s look is from a medieval tapestry and painfully modern. She is bewildered by the horror around her, yet earnest in trying to understand it. She passes through fear to despair and emerges resigned to God's will, as the flames at her burning roar around her, and the common people, in agony, go to their deaths in protest. No word needs be spoken.
Other silent gems: Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, F. W. Murnau (1927); Metropolis, Fritz Lang (1927); Greed, von Stroheim (1924).
Mastering the Camera
Josef von Sternberg was famed for meticulous composition of his shots, camera movement, intense concern for atmosphere and detail. He was difficult, but if anyone could withstand his bullying, it was Dietrich, as tough off-screen as on. The screen glows when she appears, and she never appeared more glowingly than in Shanghai Express as a high-style courtesan“ she taunts the man who loved and left her: “It took more than one man to make me Shanghai Lily.
The Shanghai Express, hauling intrigue and romance, runs from Peiping to Shanghai. It’s a time of revolution: a hostile army threatens the train, while onboard the rebel leader Chang (Warner Oland as a wily, sexually aggressive, and merciless villain) measures his victims. Passengers include an Agatha Christie menagerie of characters “ a fussy elderly British woman with a little dog, a German opium dealer disguised as Muslim, an older French officer with a dark secret, a squeamish and blathering Christian missionary, a blustering and racist American gambler (Eugene Palette), a British medical officer (Clive Brook), and an inscrutable China doll (Anna May Wong) … and “Shanghai Lily," with drop-dead wraparounds and rich trophies of her sins. The train is China in miniature … open cars with multitudes of workers, squads of military jamming corridors, and Europeans luxuriating in posh compartments.
Will the train evade the rebels; will the British officer renew his affair with Dietrich? The dialogue is crisp “ why would anyone wish to be Chinese: “You’re born, they hand you a bowl of rice, and you die. Brook and Dietrich circle one another “ she her heart still very much his “ and he scandalized by her repute for sexual license. Will the train avoid Chang’s perfidy? Will Anna May Wong and Dietrich escape Chang's lust before the Hays Code for decency shuts them down?
There’s plenty of intrigue, but the real test is whether the camera will survive Dietrich’s sexual heat and von Sternberg exhaust ways to celebrate her allure. The film won awards for its camera work, and especially for the chiaroscuro mastery framing Dietrich against various qualities of darkness. Shanghai Express is a treat for the eyes, a revelation of the possibilities of B&W cinema.
Other Dietrich/von Sternberg wonders: Morocco (1930), with Gary Cooper; and Der Blaue Engel (1930), with Emil Jannings.
The 1934 film version of Somerset Maugham's 1915 novel Of Human Bondage sparkles. It has an antique look, scenes are static, comical character actors abound, along with idealized notions ... but it's hard-core for its time, with a camera that is "not a gentleman in every way". The shock is young Bette Davis as Mildred Rogers, a cafeteria waitress and a cheap tart, hard as nails, and looking to rise in the world.
Davis was praised for bringing to the screen a wickedness and derangement never before seen. Her film studio thought she had crippled her career, but reviews applauded her performance and the animal frenzy she brought to the role. Mildred can impersonate kindness and kittenish allure, but when she gets real, her tantrums rip the screen in shrieking tirades.
While Davis is electric, Leslie Howard is diffident and polished. His Philip Carey, shy about his club foot and suffocated by English reserve, is overwhelmed by his attraction to Mildred ... the more she mistreats him, the more he desires her. Even after she runs off with his friend, Carey cannot abandon her, a slave to his master. Story has it that Howard, an established star of English cinema, resented having to play against an American nobody with a slip-shod Cockney accent.
Maugham thought Davis was perfect for the role, and she took it on with force, even devising her make-up for the late scenes, as Mildred withers into a shocking heap from consumption. The film wanders off into a happy ending, but we stop paying attention after Davis exits. The film made her a star, and she was never better.
Another Maugham hit: The Razor’s Edge (1946), with Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, and Clifton Webb … Bette Davis All about Eve (1950).
Spielberg salutes Captains Courageous (1937) “ and what a winner. It stars Freddie Bartholomew, Spencer Tracy, Lionel Barrymore, and Melvin Douglas, and offers exhilarating footage of graceful sloops at sea. Tracy won best actor as the Portuguese fisherman Manuel, as lively an impersonation as ever this versatile actor accomplished. Some say, though, that Bartholomew stole the film.
It's the Rudyard Kipling classic, with a bored and troublesome young heir kidnapped from cozy wealth and boredom to serve on a fishing boat, plying the rough waters of the Outer Banks. The waters are stocked with cod and halibut and the sloop with a crew of fabled character actors, John Carradine and Charlie Grapewin … along with Barrymore. The voices alone are worth the price of admission.
Freddie's dad is too busy serving corporate boards to be a proper papa, but Manuel more than fills the role, burdening Freddie with buckets of offal to empty and fish to clean, stuffing his head with nautical lore, and his heart with life’s joy and music. Tracy's whimsical songs accompanied by the hurdy-gurdy bless this film.
Captains Courageous is another Victor Fleming masterpiece (Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, The Good Earth) that dominated the late 1930s. It's a film about family and community and about the tolerance and patience required of us to be human together. It's also one of those films where you can't look away for an instant for its drama and wit, good humor and black-and-white elegance.
Sea Tales: Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), director Frank Lloyd, with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton.
John Ford Films
John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) is a western that's still a cowboy movie, and the best of its kind. It stars Claire Trevor and this newcomer to "A" pictures, John Wayne -- Ford called him "everyman" and predicted his stardom. The cast is stellar -- Thomas Mitchell as Doc, John Carradine as the Southern gent/gambler, and Andy Devine (just divine). For old-time cowboy fans, there's Tim Holt and Tom Tyler.
Stagecoach was filmed in B&W, with a rich complement of dusty gray. Orson Welles said he watched it 40 times. The chase scenes are a marvel, including underneath shots, where the coach and the mad pursuit of horses roll right over us; the bar-room scenes are slow and full of menace, and the night-time face-off on the emptied street, with ominous shadows, sets the style.
It's a legitimate "horse-opry", too, complete with whore with heart of gold, a beautiful Mexican-Apache woman singing a Spanish love song, a town (Lordsburg) filled with vaqueros and cowpokes, skitterish horses at hitching posts, and a bar every ten feet, with a piano-player and nighttime ladies. And there's "the Ringo Kid", revenging his father and brother, going up against those ornery cowards, the Plummer gang.
The film spaces its scenes deliberately and moves the story at the right pace, revealing character and building tensions with impressive skill. There's a feel of authenticity with the horses and horse teams, and Monument Valley is treated with proper reverence. The "Indians" are wild and real. Unlike later “westerns", the cowpoke/actors know which end of the horse is which. Love and good fellowship triumph, slow-footed law is outfoxed, and justice prevails. It's two hours of delight, and there's this John Wayne fellow.
Other Ford: Grapes of Wrath (1939); How Green was My Valley (1940); My Darling Clementine (1946); She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949); The Quiet Man (1952); and The Searchers (1956).
My favorite screwball comedy is The Lady Eve (1941), written and directed by Preston Sturgis. The film stars scrumptious and witty Barbara Stanwyck, and handsome and bumbling Henry Fonda. The cast includes a parade of great character actors -- Charles Coburn, as a cultured card-shark; William Demarest, as a rough-hewn Irish Sancho Panza; Eric Blore, that preposterous fake English gentleman; and gravel-voiced Eugene Palette, as the paternal ale magnate, exasperated by the tasks of being wealthy.
Sturgis (born Edmund Preston Biden, in Chicago) had a madcap upbringing -- in his childhood, dragged about Europe by his bohemian mom. The result was his sharp scrutiny of social class, its morals and money, and various bad imitations. It made him a satirist, brilliantly equipped at verbal play, delivered with speed and charming nonchalance. Sturgis brews up a delicious mix of vaudeville pratfalls, spilled gravy, flailing gestures, and improbable wit.
The Lady Eve opens shipboard on a luxury liner, with Fonda -- a handsome, and well-tailored gent -- the object of glances and ploys by the fashionable females on board. Fonda is oblivious, embroiled instead with herpetology (he's a reptile enthusiast). While he reads on about snakes, Eve (Stanwyck) sets out the traps, and she's as canny as he is bewildered. In a sexy stateroom scene, she works her magic on her gob smacked prey. As the enchantress reels him in, she falls for his simplicity and his sappy declarations of love. Eve, exposed as a cheat, returns disguised as a British heiress, which leads to a marriage and a wedding night of ... well, you've got to see it.
A Sturgis plot races along, threading memorable scenes and bridging improbable chasms. It's a trick the Coen brothers have absorbed. There is a gaiety in these films, a giddy sense of laughter in hard times. His peak years are the early to mid-1940s, and Sturgis strikes sparks from hard flint, holding up against the gloom and menace.
Preston Sturgis: The Great McGinty (1940); Sullivan’s Travels (1941); Miracle at Morgan Creek (1944). Cary Grant, Bringing Up Baby (1938), His Girl, Friday (1940), and Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).
Film noir flourished in the 1940s and 1950s, with its tough talking detectives, dull-eyed killers, and steamy dolls. Criss Cross (1949), director Robert Siodmak, stars Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo, and Dan Duryea. Film Noir Foundation founder Eddie Muller rated this lesser-known film among the best. He fell in love with DeCarlo, and I can't blame him, but the film suffers from momentum problems and uncertain handing of Lancaster's character. Still, it packs a punch.
The opening is riveting, mostly for DeCarlo. Her sexual intensity is a feature of film noir (Lisbeth Scott, Lauren Bacall, and Gloria Graham). The last twenty minutes strikes the key to the drama, and Duryea's derangement is brilliant. Lancaster is young and sweetly handsome (loves his mom) and very blond against DeCarlo's dark mystery.
The thugs in Duryea's gang are incidental but memorable -- an Italian who speaks fluent gravy, a couple of blank-faced maniacs, and young John Ducette. Duryea looks great, upholstered in the finest supper-club duds with elegantly matted hair -- never been a nattier gangster.
The intense conclusion, the criss cross, is marvelous. You don't know where you stand or where you would like to stand, whom to trust and who deserves getting it. The final moments, an elegant plot ballet, have a twisted beauty to them.
The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Double indemnity (1944) come first to mind, but the list goes on … all the way to Chinatown (1974).
Trusting parents used to send kids off to the movies without much thought to what we'd be seeing. I watched White Heat (1949) when I was 9 and it shaped my life. Critics rate it top-notch, with many features of film noir, and with the best ever gangster for violence and mad delight in destruction. Cody Jarret (Cagney) has deep problems pleasing his mother and avoiding his voluptuous wife (Virginia Mayo). The psycho-sexual tangle has sledge-hammer subtlety.
It opens at a roar (director Raoul Walsh), with a monster locomotive heading right at us, and then, one of those heavy dark sedans screeching around mountain curves. Cagney leaps from an overpass onto the train, a henchman (Steve Cochrane) knocks off the conductor, Cagney blasts (with mad grin) the engineer and his assistant (nice elderly men), the gang blows open the mail car with dynamite, and one of Jarrett’s Gang is scalded by steam, screaming in agony, collapsed on the tracks ... the first four minutes.
Cagney is explosive -- a fast-talking little guy who commands his gang with ruthless efficiency. He's also mentally ill, subject to crippling headaches only Ma Jarrett can ease. He's surrounded by traitors -- his va-voom wife, all curves and trickery, and "Big Ed" who is having a fling with her. The cops have a plan to capture Jarrett, but Cody is wily and pleads to a lesser crime. The cops are wilier and imprison Edmund O'Brien to earn Cody's trust and locate the missing loot. The end of the film is famous as Cody blows himself up on the tower of a petrochemical plant. Showing off for his recently murdered mom, he bellows in triumph: “Made it, Ma! Top of the World!"
White Heat has great sneering dialogue. Mayo begging Cagney to buy her expensive furs, shows him a magazine, and remarks "I'd look great in that"; he answers, "Baby, you'd look great in a shower curtain". Cagney's rasping voice and timing, his clog-dance strut, his shift from wide smile to dark menace: Welles called it film greatness.
By 1949, Cagney's career had flagged, and word was out with the studios that he was difficult to work with. He had lost some of his dancer's agility, too, and was noticeably approaching middle age and girth. White Heat brought him back exceeding even Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), and one Saturday afternoon, I was there to see it.
Gangsters include Edward G. Robinson’s Little Caesar (1931) and Paul Muni as Scarface (1932), reprised in 1984 by Al Pacino, Goodfellas (1990) and Andre Fuqua’s Training Day (2001).
Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest (1951) is spare and haunting, with surprising emotional impact. A young Catholic priest, inexperienced in worldly terms and in pastoral craft, is assigned a faded church in northern France. He is pale and sickly, suffers from a stomach complaint, eats little, and keeps a meticulous journal, pondering his illness and God's purposes for his life. We see the journal as it is being written, and hear a voice-over that gives the barren words intimacy and quiet feeling. He performs the daily mass in its threadbare theatricality, with one parishioner attending. The town, drab and secretive, has a malicious interest in their young and uncertain pastor.
Claude Laydu, his performance much praised, is the priest, wavering between grim persistence and dead weariness. The town torments him -- an elderly congregant protests the cost of his wife's burial, his catechism class of young girls mocks him, the local Count bullies him “ underscoring his doubts and sending him for counsel to a hard-headed priest who mocks him and to a dismal atheist doctor beaten down by village ignorance. The young priest's efforts to probe the misery of the Count's household involves him in a moral morass that is in fact a spiritual sickness; one that he, surprisingly, is well prepared to treat.
Bresson's technique is unusual. He creates emotional distance for the viewer, escaping melodrama and enhancing feeling, as we become absorbed by the journal's text and the wan voice of its narrative. The narrative is fragmented, with numerous fade-outs, as the tale wanders into quiet coherence. Bresson employed amateur actors and repeated takes until they forgot the theatrical effect they had intended. The resulting blankness of affect produces the film’s unsettling realism.
A host of celebrated directors have praised Bresson's technique. Ingmar Bergman“ an expert in parched spiritual longing and doubt -- said he was "extremely fond" of this film, "one of the strangest ever made." Less expected, Scorsese noted his debt to Bresson in creating the peculiar distancing in Taxi Driver and its hypnotic narrative voice. We experience Diary of a Country Priest as a novel, realized for our reflection in the somber light of the movie screen.
Ingmar Bergman studied spiritual anguish in The Seventh Sea (1957); Through a Glass Darkly (1961), and Winter Light (1963).
Many think Tokyo Story (1953) one of the best films ever produced. Director Yasujiro Ozu is famed for innovative use of the camera and deliberate pace of his films. Tokyo Story follows the visit of an aging couple from a rural village to Tokyo, energetically restoring itself after WWII. The couple pay a rare visit to their adult children and to the widow of a son killed in the war. The children are struggling middle class people, beset by cramped living space and limited budgets, disobedient youngsters, marital spats, demanding work schedules, and worry they have fallen short of their parents’ expectations.
These difficulties are not crippling and certainly not tragic. They are simply normal life. The descent of aging parents into their busy lives tests their adult children’s ability to accommodate their parents, physically and spiritually.
Ozu’s stationary camera is set at a low angle and frames his characters in tight, in-door spaces at middle range. The resulting closeness is short of emotional intimacy, suggesting instead communal concerns, common family interactions. The parents and their children have become strangers, separated by a broken culture, traditional ways now odd in westernized, post-war society.
The elders are tolerant, their children less so. One daughter, a small businesswoman, is particularly impatient and impolite; the eldest son, a community doctor, is ashamed of his limited accomplishments. The surprise is the widowed daughter-in-law, who lives alone in reduced circumstances, and proves exceptionally kind and loving.
The parents endure elder infirmities. Tomi “ an old woman, overweight, and fading in her abilities “ is a traditional woman, accommodating and passive, and embarrassed by forgetfulness and mild confusion. Shukichi, a lean and graceful old man, has a sweet calm about him, remorseful he was once a drunkard and unreliable.
In a marvelous sequence, he meets with two drinking pals. Soaked in sake, they share their sense of failure in life and disappointments over their sons, some lost in the war, and others lost to a permissive culture or to lazy habits. I don’t know another film that would make room for this conversation and its uneasy mix of emotions.
Tokyo Story is humane and poetic, avoiding theatrical moments and devices. We settle into its loose pace, including artful transitions. The camera often lingers on a room after the characters have left, or on a random street scene or industrial setting. There is something of Virginia Woolf’s ghostliness here, something of a Buddhist displacement where struggling ego is put to rest for a moment. The characters are not perfect, but they are excellent, having learned compassion from their short-comings and blessings that flow from peaceful acknowledgement.
The list of distinguished Japanese films includes Mizoguchi’s Ugetzu (1954) and Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), and Derzu Uzala (1975).
Ashes and Diamonds (1958) appears on many best lists. I had not heard of it. It's a Polish film, directed by Andrzej Wajda and stars Zbigniew Cybulski as a Polish nationalist assassin. The film is set in 1945 as Germany surrenders and Poland is being reorganized by the Soviets, along with the Polish Workers' Party. The assassin, the film's central character, had been a partisan adept at killing Nazis and now has been recruited to kill a Communist union leader, a thoughtful, trustworthy, and compassionate man.
Cybulski, styled anachronistically after James Dean -- tight jeans, sunglasses, ambling manner -- is confused by new politics, a shifting society, and his personal desires. It’s his nation’s perplexity, with Communist leaders legitimized -- as partisans in Spain, anti-Fascist soldiers in Italy, and members of the anti-Nazi underground -- but now allied with Soviet forces directing Poland's future. Poland's confusion is deepened by its classical culture (Chopin), the tattered remnants of aristocratic grace, now played out and ludicrous.
The film is in stark B&W, its images -- mostly intimate and realistic, but with startling expressionist moments -- compiled jaggedly. The assassin struggles to balance his commitment to his cause against his wish for a young man's life. There are moments of filmic drama -- the inverted Christ in the bombed-out church, spirit glasses set aflame in a bar, the ungainly polonaise performed to an off-key jazz band -- and the summary moment, the assassin in the death embrace of his victim.
Ashes and Diamonds belongs to a period of European films that engaged politics while probing existential issues. It's a film Scorsese and many others mention, an out-of-the-way gem.
Europe has taken its political history seriously: Rosselini Rome, Open City (1945), Costa-Gravas Z (1959), Pontecorvo Battle of Algiers (1966), and De Sica Garden of Finzi-Continis (1970).
Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958) has risen from just another Hitchcock movie’ to now considered among the best films of all time. In 2007, American Film Institute rated Vertigo as ninth best ever; "Sight and Sound" ranked it best of all time in 2012 and just this year the second best. Scorsese was so taken with it he wrote a book about his infatuation. How can this be? When I saw the film years ago, I didn't think much of it; watching it now, I understand what the fuss is about. Hitchcock's film doesn't survive a rational look and has enough twists, turns, and McGuffins to threaten its credibility.
Jimmy Stewart plays retired detective "Scottie" Flanagan, hired to tail an executive's wife (Kim Novak) who has been behaving oddly. Flanagan suffers from a terror of heights, the result of a rooftop pursuit that left one cop dead and Scottie frantically clutching a rain gutter high above the street. Reviewers complained of the age difference (Stewart 49 and Novak 24), as if that wasn't the point, in this drama of obsession. Vertigo is filmed in exacting detail, each scene color coded and claustrophobic, in dizzying repetition, supported by Bernard Hermann's hypnotic score.
The film takes us on a vertiginous pursuit through hilly San Francisco, no town for agoraphobics, with wide angle turns that we experience from the tight confines of the driver. Nothing seems to be happening, raising the temperature of expectation. Novak is an image of icy perfection, as dream-like as a glossy magazine image. Is she possessed and tracing the death-cycle of a long-dead ancestor? Novak leaps into the bay, and Stewart rescues her, leading him into a romantic fantasy every middle-aged gent recognizes.
When Novak falls to her death from a church tower and then reappears in earth tones, we are convinced we are in dream space -- sitting in the dark, watching phantasms on a screen. Hitchcock closes the circle between film and our inner life.
The story of the late recognition of the film among critics depends in part on its technical recovery, with its wide-view camera work enhanced, its color intensities super-saturated, and its soundtrack brought to enveloping miasma. Many viewers report being drugged by the film, watching it multiple times to re-experience its odd state of consciousness. Watching Vertigo we enter another world, which is what Hitchcock would have us do.
Hitchcock plays with his audience, with narrative shock in Psycho (1960), perspective in Rear Window (1954), languorous sexuality in Notorious (1946) or the fright of The Birds (1963).
Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) marks a critical passage in film style. The title -- "Les Quatre Cents Coups" -- translates as "to raise hell". It refers to the antics of the film's principal character, juvenile delinquent Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), but also to director Truffaut, whose approach to filmmaking is full of bad behavior. The phrase stuck on this liberating transgression was "The New Wave", initiated by a group of film philosophes, several of whom, like Truffaut and Godard, went ahead to make movies.
Their tricks with the camera, editing, broken narrative, ironic playfulness, and a relaxed acting style have become familiar. The 400 Blows resembles a documentary, in its tour of Paris, and visits to police stations and a reform school. Scenes of disrupted family life, shot in a cramped fashion, echo its point, as does long wandering on streets unadorned of imagistic purpose. Truffaut also breaks off scenes before they round to significance and jumps disconcertingly. The effect is a trick of realism, a second-order recognition that our watching a film is bound up in expectations we would do better to discard.
Young Doinel runs up against broken social structures that reveal adult hypocrisy. His stepfather resorts to clowning to hide his failure of the male ideal of mastery and moral force; his mother, observed by her son in romantic embrace with a stranger on the street, mocks the ideal of parenting. His schoolroom is inane and cruel, lorded over by a ridiculous tyrant. Unlike his merely unruly mates, Doinel breaks free, ditches school, tries light crime and petty, but flamboyant disobedience. The end is a famous freeze-frame, the boy standing on the shore by the ocean's promise and danger. As I recall my 1950s, none of this is strange, and seeing it on film is delightful.
A key feature of the "New Wave" is the notion of the filmmaker as "auteur". Truffaut is not bringing a classic novel to the screen but is telling his own story in his own way. The 400 Blows tells the tale of lots of us delinquents -- now lawyers, and professors, and doctors and artists -- many of whom never submitted in spirit to the authorities and identify ourselves as ever and always "New Wave".
Truffaut followed Doniel in Stolen Kisses (1968); triumphed with Jules and Jim (1962). Godard’s Breathless (1960) broke more rules. British delinquency … Loneliness of the Long-Distant Runner (1962).
Scorsese's Mean Streets (1973) is electric -- he dreamed it, wrote it, and directed the hell out of it. Scorsese grew up in "Little Italy", and the film is homage to those streets. He brought a suitable roughness in technique, with a shaky hand-held camera, rough cut realism and irregular speeches depending on improv, with a pop-hits score. DeNiro's "Johnny Boy" is unexpected in every scene, just as likely to be meek as menacing, and as mad as Keitel's "Charlie" is calculating and sincere. In Mean Streets the fistfights are playful; the quiet conversations in white-tablecloth civility have blood all over them, as raw roughnecks aspire to mob membership. Mean Streets is Scorsese's coming out party and DeNiro's too, but the film also announces the start of mob tales that dominate the next half century.
Scorsese's recent list of favorites reveals his directorial interest in the flow of scenes, a concern for sustained energy and experiments with continuity. Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest, much admired by Scorsese, may seem to have little similarity to Mean Streets, but it shares its architecture, with scenes that open abruptly and avoid a settled conclusion. In scene after scene, we don't initially know where we are, how we got there, and where we’re going. This propulsion keeps the viewer leaning forward and ready for surprises.
At the heart of Mean Streets is Charlie's (Harvey Keitel) religious quest: "You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it." And later, Theresa: "Saint Francis? What the hell are you talking about? St. Francis never ran numbers." Torn between making his way into the "respectable mob" and devotion to his childhood friend, Charlie obeys his loyalty to his damaged buddy, losing his prospects but preserving his soul. Scorsese is wise not to preen over this message.
Many moments anticipate Coppola's Godfather 2, and especially the religious street festivals that provide a rich palette to the neighborhood. As scenes build, music shifts from hits to arias in that earthy Sicilian vocal style; "Little Italy's" debt to Cavaliera Rusticana. Mean Streets is lifted from street mayhem to classic tragedy, as fate works out its painful necessity in the lives of punks and hoodlums, some doomed to disaster and others to a peculiar sainthood.
Scorsese brings street electricity and the power of music to Taxi Driver (1976) and as does Tarantino in Pulp Fiction (1994).
When The Deer Hunter (1978) was released, I decided not to see it. The film's depiction of Vietnamese people and the made-up Russian roulette motif was too much for those with strong feelings about the war and its distorted patriotism. But 45 years later, Cimino's film appears as an untidy masterpiece, with extraordinary truth-telling and imaginative power.
Although a Vietnam War film, most of the action is set in the imagined Clairton, PA and surrounding countryside. The first third of the film is devoted to a wedding celebration in the Russian-Orthodox community. The community -- built around the steel mill, local bars, and macho brotherhood -- is the film’s center of interest. Cimino gets this slice of America, where life is a struggle, yet people do their best to find grandeur (hunting in the mountains) and love and friendship.
Events in Vietnam flash by quickly, in jagged discontinuity. We are dislocated into a nightmare where crazed and bloody things erupt suddenly, leaving deep traces of horror. Roger Ebert, correctly, praised the Russian roulette scenes as a perfect artistic expression for the war's madness for those fighting in country. Two scenes away from the battlefront carry this same expression -- Walken in the Saigon hospital unable to recall his name; and Streep's struggle to focus her thoughts in the dim backroom of the grocery store where she works.
Much is made of the closing scene, where survivors, some badly battered, gather for a meal and find themselves singing "God Bless America." Is Cimino ironic, given the horrors he’s depicted, or sincere, given the strength of the bond they share? It appears he means both.
The film stars DeNiro, John Savage, and John Cazale and won Best Picture and Best Director, with Walken Best Supporting Actor.
Deer Hunter is an experience, with the narrative unspooling in its own time frames, with its own peculiar logic. Great films are like that.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1954), Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), Stone’s Platoon (1986), and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998).
These films stream free on the internet (YouTube, Internet Archive, OK.RU, Kanopy, etc.) and at low cost on Prime and Netflix.