The Black Cat (1934)

Edward G. Ulmer | 1hr 5min

Atop the ruins of Fort Marmorus in Hungary, where thousands of World War I soldiers died, an imposing manor has been built by Austrian architect, Hjalmar Poelzig. Within its basement, an evil Satanic cult gathers, preserving the bodies of dead women for its own nefarious purposes. It is also upon these dark grounds where Edgar G. Ulmer stages a showdown between two of Universal Pictures’ greatest stars, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, both chewing scenery with exaggerated accents and mannerisms that are wild by even their own standards. An “atmosphere of death” hangs over their decades-old rivalry, cast in stark shadows across lavish halls and secret dungeons, and Ulmer savours every demented moment of it, painting over The Black Cat’s uneven pacing with a pulpy, macabre expressionism.

Honeymooners and audience conduits Peter and Joan are the least interesting thing about this film of treachery, conspiracies, and mind games. Their encounter with Lugosi’s psychiatrist Dr. Vitus Werdegast is simply our introduction into a far more fascinating underworld run by Poelzig, Karloff’s enigmatic occultist. Rain pours down in the film’s exteriors, dousing the night in a pervasive gloom, while Ulmer’s interior architecture becomes a Gothic extension of Poelzig’s madness. Against bright backlights, silhouettes cut striking shapes out of his characters, while a pair of spiral staircases become central set pieces – one stretching wide across a gridded backdrop, and the other sharply dropping into the basement like a steep, rickety tower.

Like Dracula’s castle or Frankenstein’s laboratory, Poelzig’s manor stands in a lineage within Universal monster movies of creepy buildings standing atop lonely mountains.
Excellent use of chiaroscuro lighting for the introduction of Karloff’s creepy occultist, rising from his bed.
Ulmer returns to this set piece multiple times, each time finding new angles and shadows around it.

Most powerful of all Ulmer’s visual motifs though are the elongated shadows cast by Poelzig’s black cat, striking a fear deep into Dr. Vitus’ heart with its legs stretched out like fingers, and representing a “living embodiment of evil.” Karloff himself takes on characteristics of his feline companion too, prowling around the manor in long robes and scowling at his guests from beneath a heavy brow. When he invites Dr. Vitus to play a game of death, Ulmer even cuts away to an eerie montage of tracking shots down the building’s opulent hallways, hauntingly disembodying his voice like a lingering spectre. He is a force of malevolence on every level, certainly in the underworld of occultism, but also in his betrayal of his own nation to the Russians in World War I.

A commitment to the visual motif of the black cat, tying its shadows into the occult symbolism.
Ulmer using these angular beams to obstruct the shots of Poelzig’s Satanic cult.

The Satan worshippers who gather in Poelzig’s tabernacle are an unassuming lot, dressing in formalwear and looking more like wealthy aristocrats than social outcasts. Still, there is something unsettling about their glowering faces as we cut between them in close-ups, while Ulmer’s wide shots are obstructed by the obelisks and cross-like altar at the centre of the room. So too do the shadows and torture instruments of Poelzig’s dungeon construct some particularly oppressive frames around his final confrontation with Dr. Vitus, which gruesomely comes to an end with the Satanist’s execution on his own embalming rack. The Black Cat does not possess the same narrative strength as either Dracula or Frankenstein, and yet the morbid delight of seeing the stars of both clash across Ulmer’s expressionistic interiors makes for a darkly mesmerising occult horror.

A well-cut montage jumping around the faces of the cult members.
A huge influence from German expressionism in these shadows, angles, and designs – the foundation of this film’s profuse visual style.

The Black Cat is not currently streaming in Australia.


Gone with the Wind (1939)

Victor Fleming | 3hr 58min

Before the late 1930s, there was nothing in the world of cinema that even came close to matching the dominant cultural force that was Gone with the Wind, which fended off every other film of 1939 to singlehandedly rule supreme as the highest-grossing movie of the year, the decade, and once adjusted for inflation, all-time. Studio moviemaking would never look the same again, strengthening powerhouse producers like David O. Selznick and asserting them as the most important players in a film’s success over the creatives working for them. It is hard to argue otherwise in this specific case too – Victor Fleming only claims director’s credit on Gone with the Wind since he took over from Sam Wood, who had previously replaced George Cukor, making this cinematic landmark very much the result of fruitful artistic collaboration from a huge array of great talents.

The other side of this sweeping historical epic’s cultural impact looms large in more recent years as a controversial, romanticised vision of the Old South, downplaying the horror of its white supremacy and slavery. Gone with the Wind is laden with historical inaccuracies and racial stereotypes which plant it firmly on the side of the Confederates in the American Civil War, making some scenes particularly difficult to stomach and consequently tainting its legacy in the eyes of the broad populace. Still, the truth of the matter isn’t so simple as that either – if Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara is meant to represent the qualities of that long-lost culture, then her character flaws paint a pricklier portrait than one might expect.

Jaw-dropping, romantic scenery of Southern landscapes, illuminated under burnt orange skies and visually composed to perfection.

Scarlett’s introduction at her beloved family plantation of Tara sets her up immediately as a magnetic figure, peeling back the two identical suitors on either side of her in a forward tracking shot to dramatically reveal the beautiful woman wedged between them. Fleming’s camera will often find itself drawn towards her in scenes like these where crowds of men lavish her with attention, and while she happily indulges in these innocent flirtations, there is only one man she has eyes for. It is almost comical how obsessed she is with Ashley Wilkes given how plain he is in comparison to Clark Gable’s moustachioed, debonair Rhett Butler, and yet it is just like her to keep pining after what she can’t have.

The nationwide search for find the right person to play Scarlett O’Hara is a significant piece of history in itself, and the choice of British actress Vivien Leigh too would go down as one of Hollywood’s most inspired pieces of casting. Here, she does not just fill in the archetype of the Southern belle – she is the exact image that is conjured when those words come to mind, possessing a charming, hospitable front that only barely obscures her vain entitlement. Her wardrobe of hoop skirts, corsets, and wide-brimmed straw hats mark that privilege with incredible sartorial elegance, designed with great authenticity by Walter Plunkett according to the trends of the era, while complementing her character arc with costumes moving through white, black, green, and red palettes. Not everything here feels entirely traditional though, as while Scarlett is a woman of the Old South, she also possesses the attitude of a 1930s heroine, toying with men in such a way that at times virtually belongs in a screwball comedy.

Simply some of the best costuming and production design put to film, notably authentic to the period.

As an actress, Leigh falls in line with the theatrical traditions of the day, and yet there is also remarkable subtlety in her expressions that frequently announce her displeasure and judgement with nothing but a slightly raised eyebrow. Opposite her, Gable offers a dangerously handsome challenge, frequently playing the devil’s advocate who is unafraid to call out others on their arrogance. The chemistry between the two is palpable, setting Scarlett and Rhett up as headstrong equals and potentially even soulmates were it not for her blind jealousy and wandering eyes.

One of the great cinema romances brought to life by Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, playing the roles they would always be remembered for.

If the character of Scarlett and the culture of the Old South make up two points of a three-pronged metaphor, then the third is represented by a physical location, Tara. Many of Gone with the Wind’s greatest motifs are attached to the O’Hara plantation, with the most notable among them being the blazing sunsets that silhouette Scarlett against matte paintings of burnt orange clouds, and frame her beneath a gnarled, twisted oak tree. Also evoking Tara’s warm homeliness is its instantly recognisable musical theme of soaring strings and dignified horns, composed by Max Steiner in what may very well be the greatest work of his distinguished career. Gone with the Wind is an artistic landmark in many ways, though certainly chief among them is its gorgeously sentimental score, rising and falling with each dramatic beat and running alongside us as we escape a burning Atlanta.

The formal repetition of Scarlett silhouetted against handsome matte paintings of Tara is a powerful choice, marking the beginning, middle, and end of this sprawling narrative.

From the vividly passionate Technicolor cinematography to the ravishing production design, every element of Gone with the Wind is designed as a fantasy conjured up by pure, 19th century nostalgia, making the eventual fall of the South towards the end of Act 1 all the more devastating in its apocalyptic destruction. Even while Confederate armies buckle under the assault of the Union, many men continue to claim that Atlanta will never be conquered, but as Scarlett navigates its crowded field hospitals, her own faith in these affirmations begins to crumble. If Victor Fleming is to take credit for any of the film’s artistic innovations, then it should be for the immaculate crane shot which starts close on Scarlett’s search for Dr Meade and then slowly lifts up into the air, where we bear witness to the city’s main road packed with wounded and dead soldiers. Extras stretch into the distance, and finally the full scope of the South’s huge losses hits home, punctuated at the end of the shot by a Confederate flag coming into view, flapping in the breeze yet irreparably damaged.

The scope of the American Civil War gradually revealing itself before our eyes in this masterful crane shot – one of the art form’s best right next to Intolerance and Singin’ in the Rain.

Just like the apparently unsinkable Titanic, Atlanta falls faster than anyone expected. There is no faking the sort of ambitious, cataclysmic set piece which Selznick orchestrated through the burning of old studio lots, exploding gunpowder and collapsing structures around Scarlett and Rhett who continue riding past fires blazing several storeys high. As fierce orange hues leap up into the sky, a formal comparison is drawn to those vibrant sunsets that so often illuminate the landscapes of Tara, and it is indeed exactly there where Scarlett chooses to return when Rhett finally decides to join the fight in its last days. “Maybe I have a thing for lost causes when they’re really lost, or maybe I’m ashamed of myself,” he admits, with a sly nod to his own love for Scarlett. Even after witnessing such destruction, she too finds renewed strength, though for her it is the survival of Tara through hellish conditions which inspires an invigorating resilience, as she stands out in its fields where a few crops still miraculously grow and delivers a firm resolution.

“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”

A huge, dazzling set piece in the burning of Atlanta, cataclysmic in proportions.
An exquisite composition here with the framing of the horizon, the crosses scattered through the shot, and the wagon silhouetted against the sky – there is a deep mourning and loss expressed in this image.

And indeed, how could someone as cunning, resourceful, and privileged as Scarlett ever break an oath like this? Act 2 of Gone with the Wind trades in a great deal of its epic scale for more intimate melodrama, though this is not to say it dispenses with its astonishing visual style. Rhett’s eventual proposal to Scarlett carries the hope that she will one day return the affection, while her acceptance is almost driven entirely by the prosperity and security that he offers, once again leading her away from Tara and into a new home of opulent wealth. William Cameron Menzies’ production design continues to shine here in the clutter of ornaments, sculptures, and chandeliers around the set, often catching the golden light shed by his candelabras and oil lamps to make for some exquisitely delicate compositions. This aesthetic takes a dark turn when Scarlett and Rhett’s relationship plunges to terrifying new lows as well, emphasising the deep reds of the fine carpet and splendid costumes as he threatens her and forcefully carries her upstairs, leading to what is implied as a drunken rape.

A return to the opulence of the opening when Scarlett marries Rhett, though here defined by golden ornaments, soft lighting, and deep red textiles.

Indeed, much of Gone with the Wind’s second act continues to wallop us with one tragedy after another, revealing a deep depression in Scarlett’s life that persists even after securing the wealth she has promised herself. Eight years pass by over this period, and each one seems to poison their toxic marriage even more than the last, seeing Scarlett continue to flirt with Ashley and get caught up in scandals. In circumstances beyond her control, she suffers the death of her daughter, her unborn baby, and eventually her rival-turned-friend, Melanie. Where the film’s first act saw the decline of a civilisation, the second formally reflects that on a smaller scale, once again driving Scarlett to the pits of despair – and then, just as it seems as if the killing blow has landed, seeing her optimistically rise from the ashes with a reminder of where her true love lies.

Scarlett’s nightmare come to life, running through the mist searching for something important.

In the film’s final minutes, Scarlett finally finds herself living out a nightmare from an earlier scene involving searching for something important in the mist, though it is only now, years later, that she finally realises what that is – Rhett. Dressing her in all black and consuming her in a grey fog as she runs to confess her love to him, the dour colour palette virtually warns us of his famous, dismissive response, immortalised as one of cinema’s great lines.

“Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

The scene may not be as broadly cataclysmic as the fall of Atlanta, but it stings all the same, turning Scarlett’s own obnoxious self-regard against her and leaving no one else to blame. Her obstinance may be her greatest fault, and yet as she recalls the hope and security that the “red earth of Tara” offers her in times of crisis, it also becomes the foundation of her survival.

“After all, tomorrow is another day.”

Such is the spirit of the Old South, according to Gone with the Wind, that no amount of defeat can keep it down. Crushed once in battle, and for a second time in a cold rejection, it lives on through this Southern belle, refusing to cave in. Few films have matched the majesty and grandeur of this colossal Hollywood epic, and an era-defining character as prideful, stubborn, and thorny as Scarlett O’Hara deserves nothing less.

A stinger of a break-up immortalised in one of cinema’s most famous lines.

Gone with the Wind is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Erle C. Kenton | 1hr 11min

Science-fiction was still a relatively young genre in the 1930s when Universal Pictures’ monster movies were flourishing, not quite distinct yet from the horror conventions it emerged from, but still carving out its own speculative concerns of man playing God. It makes sense then why the studio looked to H.G. Welles’ The Island of Dr. Moreau for inspiration in this field. The ‘father of science-fiction’ wrote novels that have now essentially become fables for an industrial, modern world, and in Erle C. Kenton’s despairingly grotesque Island of Lost Souls, his cautionary tale of interfering with nature is immortalised as one of the greatest film adaptations of his work. Dr. Moreau’s twisted biological experiments become a source of barbaric horror here, but perhaps even more terrifying than his creations is the egotistic scientist himself, played by an enormously pompous Charles Laughton whose crisp, white suit and stout figure projects an image of immense wealth, uninhibited by worldly human ethics.

A mere five years after working on F.W. Murnau’s silent masterpiece Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, cinematographer Karl Struss carries visual cues from German expressionism over into his work on Island of Lost Souls, infusing Kenton’s jungle sets with an air of quiet dread. These are not like those which would feature in King Kong a year later, where the wilderness becomes a giant playground for apes and dinosaurs, but instead his dense foliage and imposing branches press in on his actors and obstruct gorgeously composed shots. Likewise, the interior of Moreau’s menacingly named “House of Pain” is designed like a Gothic nightmare, seeing Struss frequently shoot characters from behind the bars of the scientist’s steel cages.

Kenton returns to this frame a few times, shooting it almost like a portal between the outside world and Moreau’s island.
Bars all around Moreau’s compound, used to superbly expressionistic effect as visual obstructions and shadows.

It is from the thick, white fog surrounding Moreau’s island that a freighter ship emerges carrying our hero, Edward Parker, who has been reluctantly stranded with these men delivering animals to the secretive scientist. Silhouettes with unidentifiable features crowd the shot in the foreground, anxiously anticipating the arrival of outsiders, though it isn’t long before see them in full. What most people assume to be the strange-looking natives of this island, we recognise as Moreau’s mutated experiments, living under his cruel dominion which they call the “Law.” As they stare down the camera, Kenton reveals the fine detail of their makeup and prosthetics, covering bodies in coarse hair and squashing noses flat against faces. Bela Lugosi may not be instantly recognisable playing their leader, the Sayer of the Law, but his voice certainly is, heading their call-and-response mantra of “Are we not men?” as a sad reminder of their half-lives.

Kenton piles on the chilling terror with these daunting close-ups, revealing the fine details of the beasts’ make-up and prosthetics.

Edward’s arrival on the island is timely for Dr. Moreau, who is ready to progress his experiment to the next stage – testing the breeding capabilities of his hybrids with people. Lota’s mannerisms are primitive, but she is the most human-looking of the bunch, and as the only female, she is hand-picked to ingratiate herself with Edward. Like the rest of the scientist’s test subjects though, her existence is sad and pitiful, confused over her identity while longing to partner with this new, intriguing man.

Unfortunately for Moreau, the ability to complete the transformation of beast to human continues to elude him, and when his work is threatened by outsiders, he is eventually pushed to break his own Law – blood must be spilt for the good of his island’s future. It is ironically that malevolent act which exposes his hypocrisy to his creations, whose rebellion brings about the end of his judicious order. Once again, they crowd in on the camera, though this time in a frenzy which sees them revert to their primal, bestial selves, turning their master’s tools back on him in his House of Pain.

“You made us things! Not men! Not beasts! Part man! Part beast! Things!”

They aren’t close-ups, but Kenton still directs his actors to stare right down the camera in marvellously staged compositions like this.

Transcending the natural order is a dangerous game in H.G. Welles’ science-fiction, and Kenton extends this contemplative speculation to full-blown expressionistic horror with his translation of this powerful fable to screen. Mortal deities like Moreau may thrive on their artificial empires for a time, and yet within Island of Lost Souls, those who know what it’s like to be God are also doomed to crumble beneath the weight of their own selfish, conceited ambition.

Island of Lost Souls is not currently streaming in Australia.

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Rouben Mamoulian | 1hr 29min

In the romantic, fairy tale world of Love Me Tonight, it isn’t a stretch to believe that a poor tailor could disguise himself as a baron, infiltrate a wealthy Parisian family, and still marry the princess after his lie is exposed. This is a story based in age-old archetypes, written as broadly as any fable about aristocrats falling for commoners, and yet Rouben Mamoulian’s cinematic translation of these conventions carries a narrative dexterity and formal texture unlike so many other films of its ilk. Blowing in the wind, we find music passing through cities, country sides, and castles, and in its infectious lyrical motifs Mamoulian imbues it with a mystical power that transcends class barriers and unites distant characters under rousing expressions of love.

The first time we witness such a phenomenon in Love Me Tonight is during the musical number ‘Isn’t it Romantic’, a song so immortalised in hundreds of covers that its origins here are easily forgotten. The beauty of this soundtrack shouldn’t be a surprise though – this is one of the relatively few times that musical theatre composer Richard Rodgers wrote an original score for film rather than the stage, even though many of his later theatrical collaborations with Oscar Hammerstein II such as Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music would eventually find their own adaptations to the silver screen.

Grand set designs and shadows blowing these emotions up to wondrous heights.

Here, Rodgers relishes the flow of his verses as they are picked up by major and minor characters alike, starting with our strapping young protagonist, Maurice, in his humble tailor shop. There, he sits in front of a trifold mirror and cheerily sings to his reflections like a one-man quartet, while Mamoulian’s camera eagerly pans back and forth between each. As he finishes, the melody leaves the building with a customer, only to be passed on to a chauffeur, his passenger, a platoon of French soldiers, and a homeless camp not far from Princess Jeanette’s balcony, where she delicately brings the song to its final verse. Such elegant fluidity is present not just in the music, but Mamoulian equally instils it in his editing, camera movement, and staging as well, and further solidifies these agile ensemble pieces as part of the film’s form in several other numbers too.

‘Isn’t it Romantic’ is infectiously passed between characters, transitioning smoothly from Maurice to Jeanette, and foreshadowing their impending romance.

Perhaps making this musical achievement even more remarkable is that Love Me Tonight falls a mere five years after the first feature sound film, The Jazz Singer, another movie-musical that, despite being a technological landmark, possesses far less artistic ambition than Mamoulian’s work. Rather than contextualising Rodgers’ songs here as conventionally isolated performances, they are instead woven into the very form of the narrative itself, demonstrating an effortless navigation of film’s transition to sound that so many other films stumbled over. Even in the middle of scenes, rhymes will occasionally start flowing from the actors’ lips, expressing eloquent sentiments that can no longer be contained within ordinary prose.

“A needle is magnetic.”

“How true.”

“And how poetic.”

In this way, music and romance unite to become forces larger than any single character. Even before Maurice and Jeanette are introduced, Mamoulian composes his own ‘Song of Paris’ through the polyrhythmic pulse of the city waking up, like an instrumental precursor to ‘Little Town’ from Beauty and the Beast. The opening of shutters, the sweep of a broom, and the puff of a chimney join the multitude of other sounds in this percussive symphony, building in texture and pace along with the accelerating montage towards Maurice’s introduction. Played with insurmountable charm by Maurice Chevalier, who incidentally gave his own name to the character, this cheerful tailor strides down the street towards his shop with a spring in his step, and as he greets his neighbours, Mamoulian sweeps us up in long takes gliding by his side.

The ‘Song of Paris’ displaying an astounding coordination of editing and musical composition, building an entire city out of its percussive sounds.

It is only when Maurice meets Jeanette though that the romantic longing which has pervaded Love Me Tonight settles into something truly intimate, with the song ‘Mimi’ unfolding purely through close-ups of both actors staring right into the camera. The passionate visuals only heighten from there, with long dissolves romantically bridging a loving embrace to a cloudy moonlit sky, and diagonally splitting the frame between alternate shots of their sleeping, smiling faces. Such an alluring style does not come without a good dose of comedy either, as Maurice’s request for a band of men on horses to quietly depart on “tip-toe” sees them comically ride away in slow-motion.

‘Mimi’ shot predominantly through elegant close-ups in our first run-in between Maurice and Jeanette.
Inspired editing through long dissolves and split screens. Big choices for 1930s cinema, but still so artistically potent today.

It is also somewhat amusing to see what may very well be the origin of the rom-com trope that sends one lover climactically chasing after the other to confess their love, though as it plays here, it does not feel worn-out or tired. Instead, it fits in just as nicely with the rest of this folk tale as every other romance narrative convention, playing to the raw yearning that seeps through every scene, and Mamoulian even lifts it to another level with a skilful display of suspenseful, parallel editing most certainly influenced by D.W. Griffith. With a tale of “Once upon a time” and “they lived happily ever after” punctuating the ending, Love Me Tonight cements itself as one of cinema’s great fairy tales, blending musical and cinematic style to revel in the stirring universality of love.

Maurice’s departure wearing away at Jeanette’s psyche, and Mamoulian once again returns to these beautiful long dissolves to illustrate this distressed emotional state.
A D.W. Griffith influence in this display of parallel editing, driving Love Me Tonight towards a reconciliation between its lovers.

Love Me Tonight is not currently streaming in Australia.

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

W.S. Van Dyke | 1hr 33min

Back in the days of early Hollywood when it wasn’t uncommon for films to wear their genres as titles like The Broadway Melody, audiences knew exactly what they could expect by just a few, short words. It is a little surprising then to discover that Manhattan Melodrama packs an even greater punch than its uninspired name suggests, adding its own voice to the age-old ‘nature vs nurture’ debate by formally contrasting a pair of old friends who grew up as surrogate brothers, and yet find themselves following opposing paths leading them into conflict as adults. Not only is this the second film that W.S. van Dyke directed in 1932, with The Thin Man backing up his admirable filmography, but this is also the same year that Clark Gable made his breakthrough in It Happened One Night. While his performance here doesn’t quite touch the heights he reaches in Frank Capra’s romantic comedy, his brotherly chemistry with William Powell is substantial, building between them a sweet relationship that transcends any law that might drive them apart.

The sinking of the passenger steamboat PS General Slocum in 1904 marks the point at which young boys Blackie and Jim lose their biological families and start a new one with each other, connecting over the shared tragedy marking their childhoods. It also displays van Dyke’s greatest piece of direction in the film, a truly Eisensteinian sequence like Battleship Potemkin’s Odessa Steps scene that builds a tragic disaster from the colliding fragments of a dextrously edited montage. Beyond the utter panic present in the busy staging and frenzied pacing, this montage still carefully tracks various figures within the chaos – the man who has fallen beneath the feet of a trampling crowd, the trapped child banging on a window, the choking passengers toppling over the side of the ship, and most importantly, the two boys making their own escape to shore.

Van Dyke following in the footsteps of Eisenstein in his editing of this historical disaster, adopting the Soviet montage barely ten years after its innovation.
Manhattan Melodrama also features some dynamic camera movements, keeping up with the horses here at the race track.

Though they grow up side-by-side in New York, their shared history is one of the only things they have in common. Through their years as teenagers, van Dyke returns to his inventive montage editing, but this time a split screen accompanies them as the studious Jim works hard towards a law degree, and the mischievous Blackie gambles his way to owning a successful yet illegal casino. As they become adults, another similarity soon emerges as well – Gable and Powell bear a striking resemblance to each other with their slicked-back hair, smart suits, and pencil moustaches, looking like a pair of twins. When Myrna Loy finally enters the scene as Eleanor, the stage is finally set for a love triangle that will see her romantic interest switch from one to the other, perhaps seeing them as flip sides of a single person.

An inspired split screen montage showing the diverging paths of the two surrogate brothers as they grow up.

By crafting such robust formal connections between his characters, van Dyke draws out rich, internal conflicts that bring their very principles into question. Blackie’s murder of a man who has threatened Jim during his run for New York governor might have come from a place of love, but it is a foolish act that presses his friend to doubt the legitimacy of his own election, as well as to consider unethically commuting Blackie’s sentence. As one sits in prison awaiting his execution and the other is sworn into office, Manhattan Melodrama keeps on drawing these poignant comparisons that have sent them to either end of the social ladder, composing elegant frames that trap Blackie behind prison bars and wired windows.

Gable is often framed behind bars throughout the final act of the film, but in this composition as the friends say their farewells we see them both trapped by their separate fates.

It is only when both men stop trying to cover for each other’s mistakes and accept the natural consequences of their actions that they ultimately find any closure in their relationship, as van Dyke lets them part ways towards their independent futures with a poignant farewell. Tragedy thus marks the beginning and end of Blackie and Jim’s fraternal love, touchingly binding them together as star-crossed soulmates, and, yes, even delivering on the teary melodrama promised in the film’s self-conscious title.

A poignant frame as Blackie walks towards his execution, tying off his storyline.

Manhattan Melodrama is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Young Mr Lincoln (1939)

John Ford | 1hr 40min

John Ford may be most recognised for his work on some of the great Westerns of Hollywood’s Golden Age, but there is a reverent American mythology which underlies his work even more broadly, and which is rarely so evident than it is in Young Mr Lincoln. Though it is based on a real murder case that saw a pre-presidential Abraham Lincoln successfully defend a Union soldier in court, historicity is not important to Ford, and the future president’s landmark abolition of slavery is barely even touched on besides a brief nod to his strong moral convictions. Instead, Lincoln’s origins as an Illinoisian lawyer becomes a fable sketching out the bedrock of American civilisation, building it upon those small acts of liberty and justice that are eventually overshadowed by the monumental waves they later generate.

The first of many collaborations between Henry Fonda and Ford arrives here in 1939, transforming the actor into a remarkable rendering of Lincoln, complete with gaunt cheeks and an instantly recognisable mole. As impressive as the makeup is, it is Fonda’s take on the historical figure that is even more convincing, filling in those unknown pieces of his character with a gentle yet imposing presence, delivering eloquent, off-the-cuff speeches seeping with persuasive sincerity. In those moments where he takes a stance against riled-up crowds, he holds his lonely ground with confidence, appealing to a strong idealistic belief that believes Americans can always do better.

 “We do things together that we’d be mighty ashamed to do by ourselves.”

Lincoln set apart as a voice of reason, calming an angry crowd from an elevated platform.
Ford arranges bodies with care in shots like these, drawing our eyes around images to significant focal points.

Within Ford’s brilliant staging, Lincoln takes an elevated position among others, exerting a powerful influence upon his community. Around him, masses of smaller characters and extras are staggered across frame in arresting arrangements, emphasising their unity in collectively drawing our eyes to those figures who demand our attention – not just Lincoln, but barristers, politicians, and accused murderers. Ford doesn’t discriminate between large ensembles, smaller groups, and single, isolated characters when it comes to his blocking, evenly building emotional arcs across both intense courtroom scenes and quiet reflections in the countryside. The frames he draws out of delicate, low-hanging tree branches there aren’t unlike those from How Green Was My Valley, which he would go on to direct two years later, though instead of rural Wales, Ford uses the riverbanks and fields of the American Midwest to set environments of tranquillity around Lincoln’s pensive meditations.

Elegant frames formed from twisted branches along river sides, where Lincoln takes quiet breaks and studies.
The icy river flowing in the background of this shot brings dynamic movement to the scene, as Lincoln drops a stick to decide which direction his future (and that of America) will go in.

Back in the town of Springfield, young Lincoln is highly respected for his law services, intelligently settling disputes as a voice of reason and compassion. When a brawl on the night of an Independence Day celebration becomes a murder, the lynch mob that quickly forms within the community can only be quelled by a man with as refined a sense of justice and compelling a tone as Lincoln, offering him his first platform to make real change beyond petty financial squabbles. Earlier, he hung his entire life trajectory upon the direction a dropped stick would fall in, and as Ford moves into the courtroom drama segment of Young Mr Lincoln, we again feel the ripples of history being born in a seemingly insignificant moment.

It is in these highly-strung legal proceedings that we see another side to Fonda’s Lincoln, at times acting as the comic relief to his own story by cracking jokes that lighten the mood of the jurors and gallery. Whether he is laying back in his chair with his feet up while selecting the jury or patiently listening to the prosecution’s case, Ford frequently frames him in the foreground, dominating the shot in positions of relaxed confidence. Though he is admonished for his charming frivolity, he never loses sight of the trial’s stakes, with the lives of two brothers hanging on the line and an uncertainty as to which one landed the killing blow.

Fonda dominating the foreground as Lincoln in the courtroom, while the drama unfolds in sharp focus in the background.

As it comes to light that their mother is apparently the only person to have seen which one was holding the knife, much of the following proceedings are tensely wound over her dilemma as to which one she should effectively sentence to death, and Ford exerts fine control over every slight shift in tone here. Especially notable is the moment when the accused boys come into question during a witness examination, where he lets them sit silently in the foreground with their backs to the camera, offering us their view of their fates being decided.

Though the focus is on the witness and lawyers in this scene, our eyes are guided there by the accused boys in the foreground – who also happen to be the subject of discussion.

As for the culmination of the trial, Ford’s blocking allows Fonda and his perfect timing to take the spotlight. In a single wide shot that lasts for almost three minutes, the scene turns from one of disheartening defeat to rousing victory, moving Lincoln away from the edge of the frame towards its centre where he stares down the true culprit, backed up by the judge, jurors, and defendants now standing right behind him. It is not hard to believe that this man casting a spell over the entire courtroom will one day become President of the United States, given both his sheer charisma and judicious discernment. For all the accusations of Ford being mawkish and sentimental about American history, there is little arguing against the expressive power with which he renders it on film, crafting and imparting legends that offer us some insight into the storytelling traditions that have shaped the cultural values of an entire nation.

A single long take that raises Lincoln up from defeat to victory in short, swift movements – an entire story is told just in comparing the start and end of this wonderfully staged shot.
Lincoln walks off into this gorgeous American landscape, making for a stunning final scene.

Young Mr Lincoln is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and Tubi TV.

Design for Living (1933)

Ernst Lubitsch | 1hr 31min

The title Design for Living could be the name of some 1930s instruction manual, informing citizens on how best to make the most of their lives according to some pre-set, one-size-fits-all structure. And of course, it would be Ernst Lubitsch of all pre-Code Hollywood directors to gleefully flout those social expectations in the most comically flagrant manner possible, wrapping that raunchy defiance up in the same sophisticated “touch” he is so well known for. The core premise of the relationship at this film’s centre is both amusingly and elegantly stated by Gilda, a commercial artist torn between two best friends: “A thing happened to me that usually happens to men.” Polyamory is the solution, and thus she sets a cohabiting arrangement that positions her as the “Mother of the Arts” in their house, offering friendship and criticism on their creative pursuits while leaving sex strictly off the table.

Even as rules are broken between the three of them, it remains clear that the issue is not with their “gentleman’s agreement”, but rather their own messy impulses and egos. None of these are fatal flaws – in fact one of the film’s great joys is in watching these affable characters playfully interact and make mistakes – but it does leave a tension as to whether they will achieve the harmonious balance they seek or simply break down, forcing Gilda into the bland monogamous lifestyle of the aristocracy. A third suitor, advertising executive Max, is right there to pull her into that tedious security, embodying the rigid “Design for Living” which sets strict expectations of how one should dress, talk, and behave. Imperfect and chaotic as Gilda’s relationship with George and Tommy may be, it is at least not as suffocating as the box Max forces her into.

Coming into this film, Gary Cooper, Miriam Hopkins, and Fredric March are riding high on waves of success, carrying a charming jubilance that slots nicely into Lubitsch’s style of gender comedy. Hopkins especially lights up the screen, her smile reaching all the way to her eyes with a wide-open honesty. It isn’t hard to see why George and Tommy fall so easily into Gilda’s lap, especially in one early scene that sees them profess their sympathies for her situation right after she expresses her struggle in having to choose between them both.

“It’s true we have a gentleman’s agreement, but unfortunately I am no gentleman,” Gilda later proclaims, finally giving into her sexual desires and dramatically throwing herself upon a bed in front of Tommy when George goes touring overseas. Even though Lubitsch had the world of sex jokes open to him in this pre-Code era of Hollywood, he plays his comedy cool in its implications, walking up to the edge of explicitness before side-stepping it with a sly turn of phrase. It is tantalisingly sharp writing from Ben Hecht that Lubitsch picks up and runs with in his comedic staging, constantly revolving two men around the woman between them. In those rotations, Design for Living keeps on refreshing itself throughout its brisk 90 minutes, shunning conventional character dynamics for something as honest as it is funny.

Design for Living is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Lost Horizon (1937)

Frank Capra | 2hr 12min

Even as Lost Horizon’s narrative travels to distant fantasy lands of the East and centres a group of British expats, it still isn’t that far outside Frank Capra’s usual idealistic ruminations over the American Dream. The utopian city Shangri-La and the surrounding Himalayan mountains make for epic cinematic canvases, as he builds set pieces around crowds and unusual architectural structures that could seemingly only exist in this mystical, untouched paradise. Just as the snake brought corruption into the Garden of Eden though, so too do the Brits of Lost Horizon bring cynicism to Shangri-La, tainting its purity with colonial sensibilities that struggle to reconcile its simple, blissful happiness with the western world they are used to.

The xenophobia of these characters is evident right from the opening titles where we learn of diplomat Robert Conway’s mission to rescue the last 90 white people from the fictional city of Baskul amid a revolution, while crowds of locals clambering to board the private plane are callously pushed aside without a second thought. Their privilege is clearly one they take for granted, as when their plane is hijacked and crashed in the Himalayas, they quickly find themselves far removed from their comfort zone. “What a kick I’m going to get watching you squirm for a change,” bites one of the stranded passengers, the terminally ill Gloria. She is evidently no stranger to hardship, and is ready to embrace her demise if it means seeing those haughty men go down with her.

Chaos in Baskul, crowds around this private plane.

By a stroke of good fortune though, these survivors unexpectedly encounter a mysterious man in these freezing mountains, who leads them to a temperate valley shielded on all sides from the harsh weather. Some continue to hold onto their frustration throughout their stay, refusing to move past their mistrust even when Shangri-La’s magical properties are revealed. Others who do integrate into this society manage to do so happily, letting go of connections to their old life, while others still cannot help bringing in pieces of western infrastructure and education. The irony of them feeling the need to alter perfection to suit their own familiar sensibilities even borders on satirical.

Fantastic set pieces even before we get to Shangri-La, as the Brits traverse the craggy Himalayan mountains.

It is Capra’s gorgeous construction of an entire fantastical city and the snowy, craggy peaks which surround it which mark Lost Horizon as a particularly marvellous visual achievement though. Splendid matte paintings blend seamlessly with his practical sets of towering mountains through which small, black figures hike, but once we enter Shangri-La’s great halls it is the cluttered décor that dominates the mise-en-scène in a Sternbergian manner, framing shots with candles and fruit bowls standing in foregrounds. The promised abundance of Shangri-La is virtually always on show, even as we escape into the outdoors where, through hanging branches and leaves, we watch one local woman, Sondra, bathe in a hidden waterhole, drawing heavenly comparisons to Eve in the Garden of Eden.

Exquisite frames created from fruit bowls and candles, an abundance of riches.
Capra using tree branches and leaves to frame an image of paradise.

The giant, central palace of Shangri-La is Capra’s most resourceful set piece here, the structure being a giant, blank façade with a vertical strip running down the middle where an ornate gate opens to the inside. Down the front of the building, a flight of stone stairs leads to a pond where Capra delights in capturing picturesque reflections and symmetrical compositions, crafting an awe-inspiring majesty around the city. As the finale draws near, he goes on to stage a ceremony around this dazzling piece of architecture that sees hundreds of extras trail across the garden and steps carrying fire torches, lighting up the darkness in tight formations.

Easily one of Capra’s greatest set designs. He returns to the structure many times and always finds new ways to block his actors around it.

Just as there is deep reverence in these large set pieces, so too is it there in the stylistic minimalism of scenes spent with the mysterious High Lama, the centuries-old founder of Shangri-La who dispenses wisdom from his small, bare room. Where copious displays of wealth crowds out Capra’s sets elsewhere, here the space is simply lit by a single candle standing between him and Conway, who visits the elder to learn more of Shangri-La’s history and principled philosophy.

Refreshing minimalism in the High Lama’s room – transcendent spiritualism.

There is a fragility to the precision of Capra’s visual and narrative creations in Lost Horizon, establishing an order that we realise will be breached by the end of the film by nature of its own archetypal setup. The innocence and magic of Shangri-La cannot survive in the real world where all things naturally deteriorate and perish, and as these horrific consequences set in, he also pays off on this grand fable of virtue and impiety. For every moral transgression in Lost Horizon, there is also some dark manifestation of justice that sets things right, powerfully backing up Capra’s storytelling with potent mythological archetypes of paradise, innocence, and soul-corrupting sin.

A wonderful use of matte paintings to build out Capra’s fantasy world.

Lost Horizon is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Amazon Prime Video.

Scarface (1932)

Howard Hawks | 1hr 33min

While Howard Hawks can’t take full responsibility for initiating the gangster film, we can at least give him credit for solidifying it as a genre before the Production Code cut its legs out from under it in the mid-1930s. It wouldn’t be until the emergence of New Hollywood directors like Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese in the 1970s that there was any serious revival in the United States, and another decade or so before Brian de Palma directed his remake of this film. But for a long time, it was Hawks’ Scarface which reigned supreme as the peak of the genre, setting an early standard for the sort of anti-hero we so often keep coming back to.

Tony Camonte’s arc is less of a character study than that of Tony Montana’s in de Palma’s version, but instead Hawks is far more interested in the world and legend that is built around such a threatening figure as this. The two films hit similar beats in their character journeys, playing on Freudian archetypes of the Madonna-whore complex in Tony’s relationship with his sister, as well as the murder of his boss to become the new drug kingpin in town. But Camonte is ultimately a more cowardly creature than Montana. Rather than madly going out all guns blazing in his final moments after his sister is shot, he completely breaks down. As a final gut punch, she calls him out for this weakness with her dying breath.

“I don’t want to stay. You’re afraid.”

Camonte collapsing under pressure in his final minutes, his true cowardice revealed.

Of course, this is a side of Camonte that only comes out behind closed doors under extreme pressure. The word on the street and in the newspapers paints him out as a larger-than-life figure – loathed by some, revered by others, but feared by all. So much of the gang warfare we see carried out is in short, sharp bursts of gunshots that are over within a few seconds, and target victims who are often dead before they even realise what’s happening.

Between these spurts of violence, Hawks is patient with his narrative. In the very first shot of the film, we slowly roll from the dark streets of 1920s Chicago into a nightclub after hours. Inside, crime boss Louis Costillo is wrapping up some private business with associates, and Hawks is sure to clutter every inch of his mise-en-scene with furniture, plants, and streamers. As Costillo makes a phone call, we suddenly detach from him. Our eye is caught by a shadow, moving slowly and quietly across a wall, which then turns into a silhouette behind a screen. All it takes is three gunshots from this mysterious intruder to kill Costillo, and to pay off on the masterful suspense of Hawks’ three-minute long take which introduced us to this dirty underworld.

A three-minute long take rolling from the street into a club, and ending with this terrifying assassination lit behind a screen.

To rewind a little, it is worth noting that at the start of this tracking shot, Hawks opens on the image of a street sign forming a cross shape at its intersection with the post. Though we don’t know it yet, X’s are harbingers of death in this film, marking characters who are destined to die. Scorsese surely would have had Scarface in mind when he used the exact same motif in The Departed, and Hawks is at least his equal here in the creative ways he works it into his mise-en-scène. Everything from lights, shadows, wooden roof beams, apartment numbers, and even a strike at a bowling alley seems to ominously brand each of Camonte’s targets, building tension each time by warning us of impending murders. But of course, the greatest use of this motif lies right in the film’s very title – the small, X-shaped scar on Camonte’s left cheek, marking him for dead right from the very start.

A brilliant dedication to a motif, as Hawks uses X’s all through his lighting and sets to mark characters for dead.

With that small wound, slicked back hair, and wild, angry eyes, Paul Muni strikes an intimidating figure that any newspaper would surely milk to fuel their own fear-mongering parade. But as the Chief of Detectives points out, even with that tone of dread that is attached to Camonte’s name, there is also an awe that surrounds him.

“That’s the attitude of too many morons in this country. They think these hoodlums are some sort of demigods. What do they know about a guy like Camonte? They sentimentalise him, romance. Make jokes about him. They had some excuse for glorifying our old western bad men. They met in the middle of the street at high noon, and wait for each other to draw. But these things sneak up and shoot a guy in the back, and then run away.”

One of the great performances of the 1930s – Paul Muni as Tony Camonte, leering and scowling all throughout.

In drawing this comparison to the “bad men” of the previous century, Hawks paints out an America in decline. Violence has always been a mainstay in world history, but in this new era where a coward like Camonte can reign supreme, it is conducted with secrecy and treachery, thereby repressing our most honest expressions of humanity. In wrapping up these ideas into a patient, brooding narrative, and then intermittently rupturing it with acts of brutality, Hawks effectively cuts right to the menacing heart of the gangster genre.

The real-life St. Valentine’s Day Massacre hauntingly captured in these shadows.

Scarface is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

James Whale | 1hr 15min

Before Universal Studios’ monster movies became parodies of themselves with such soulless sequels as Son of Dracula and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, there was a brief moment in the 1930s when it looked as if its attempts at franchise moviemaking might have retained some sense of artistry. In retrospect, the brilliant success of Bride of Frankenstein can be more put down to James Whale than anything else though, as the Gothic director steps up the subtext, camp, and expressionistic mise-en-scène of his original 1931 film Frankenstein to deliver not just a lynchpin of horror cinema, but a piece of film that feels even truer to his own dramatic sensibilities.

If it feels like Bride of Frankenstein carries a little less narrative elegance than its precursor, perhaps that can be put down to Whale’s diversion from Shelley’s original story. What he does offer though is an increased fascination in the more humanistic side of Frankenstein’s monster, lending the story a transgressive edge that frames him as a lonely outcast searching for genuine companionship, no matter how unorthodox. Where society deems him an inherently unlovable figure, Dr Pretorius decides that giving him a wife of his own kind might just be the answer. After all, isn’t that a perfectly conventional expression of happiness? The fact that the most honest, meaningful connection the monster makes is so quickly destroyed by strangers speaks volumes about the cultural restrictions placed upon individual happiness, particularly as they pertain to those who do not fit its most conservative definitions.

Theological symbolism in the monster’s journey. It isn’t a one-to-one comparison, but the crucifixion of a pure soul is a pointed parallel.

And indeed, it is in those areas beyond the ordinary, quiet village that the monster prefers to dwell, keeping out of sight for as long as he can. In this sense, Pretorius isn’t all that dissimilar – he too is a macabre figure who basks in the gloom of crypts and uses coffins as picnic tables. If there was anyone who could possibly understand the minds of both the monster and creator, it is him, a mad scientist who recognises his own innate darkness and yet brushes it off with grim jokes and a foppish theatricality. He is in a better position than anyone to realise what sort of friend the monster needs, and even in spite of this, the solution he poses is nothing more than a cruel, self-serving experimentation and tribute to his own ego.

Gothic architecture framing and obstructing these compositions. A simply magnificent use of decor.

Pretorius’ new world that places him at its centre is truly one of “gods and monsters”, and Whale recognises it as such in all its magnificent menace. Stark shadows are cast across faces and bodies caught in high, low, and canted angles, twisted in grotesque shapes like ghastly extensions of the Gothic architecture surrounding them. The influence of German expressionists pervades Whale’s aesthetic all through Bride of Frankenstein, its ubiquitous atmosphere forcing his characters to either struggle against or submit to its dark, eerie power. Towards the end though it is the Soviet montage theorists whose impact emerges in Pretorius and Frankenstein’s major experiment, as Whale builds a kinetic rhythm in his rapid cutting that climactically leads to the reveal of the Bride herself.

Landmark expressionistic lighting and set design in Bride of Frankenstein – truly haunting imagery.

In the short few minutes she appears onscreen, Elsa Lanchester gives a performance that, like the monster himself, has become the definitive icon of the character. Her eyes darts around the space in twitchy motions like a bird, stretched wide open in horror at her own existence. She does not react kindly to the monster either, as she screeches in fear at what has been thrusted upon her. “We belong dead,” is not so much his assertion of the natural order than it is a poignant submission to social convention, and a damnation of those other souls consumed by necrotic decay. One can’t help but feel in these final minutes that the empathy Whale holds for the monster is of an entirely different kind to that held by Shelley. Perhaps in the original 1931 film he was an abomination that Dr Frankenstein should have never created, but Bride of Frankenstein gives him the inalienable right to human life, and realises that he will only ever return to the place he came from when any chance of living that life outside the boundaries of social convention is well and truly destroyed.

A striking character design to match that of Frankenstein’s monster.

Bride of Frankenstein is currently available to stream on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.