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.

Le Jour se Leve (1939)

Marcel Carne | 1hr 33min

A man and a woman, Francois and Francoise, strike up a conversation one day when she finds herself at his workplace delivering flowers. It is a romantic meet-cute that seems fated given the similarities between their names, but this is not the start of a perfect, unhindered romance. This is simply a flashback, conjured six months down the track by a panicked Francois who has shot a man and boarded himself up inside his apartment. How do these scenes with such disparate tones connect? How could this love-stricken man turn into such an anxious, bitter murderer? He himself ponders the same question, reminiscing on the sequence of events that has led to this moment.

Francois’ memories are driven by visual cues laid around his apartment, most significantly the wardrobe which now stands in front of the door. Carne uses this as an abundant source of match cuts, softly dissolving into flashbacks where Francois has the happy freedom to move in and out of that now-blocked entrance. The poetic realism movement that Carne was largely driving in this era underlies his choices to elegantly move the camera in these romantic recollections, made especially apparent in one scene by his choice to keep reframing the lovers among picturesque flowers and ferns as they stroll through a nursery in a single take.

Le Jour se Leve is caught in a period between poetic realism and film noir, combining picturesque frames, long, gliding takes, and a heavy emphasis on shadows.

The tender connection they share is in stark contrast to Francoise’s relationship with Valentin, who is introduced as a showman with a charismatic presence which dominates everyone’s attention. As he performs impressive tricks with his trained dogs up on stage, Francoise is relegated to the position of spectator, admiring from afar but never winning his full emotional engagement in return. It isn’t just Valentin’s narcissism and dishonesty that gnaws away at Francois, but his apparent success in keeping Francoise by his side. Francois is embittered, and Valentin’s fate is sealed after delivering a particularly cruel jab at his rival.

We dip in and out of these fatalistic flashbacks several times, returning to present-day Francois pacing around apartment, the fade to dusk outside gradually consuming him in darkness. Meanwhile, the police advance and the nosy neighbours poke their heads out their doors, peering up the stairway that leads to his apartment. In their eyes, he is a cold-blooded murderous freak to be gawked at. As they crowd the streets he leans out of his window, chastising them for the fetishising of his pain while mourning the destruction of his innocence by a man who may not have been a murderer, but was a far worse person than him.

“I’m a murderer, yes! But killers can be met in any street… everywhere! Everyone kills, everyone! Only they kill by degrees, so it’s not noticed.”

Carne finds space to experiment with these inventive camera angles all through Francois’ apartment.

Carne’s elegant camerawork is gone here, replaced with a harsh montage quickly cutting between faces in the crowd, some sympathetic, others merely amused. When Francois finally shuts himself back inside, the space feels much smaller than before. The vice is tightening around him, the full impact of his corruption finally settling in his mind in the final few minutes, pushing him to take his own life. As we track out on that now-indistinguishable slump lying on the floor, the smoke of the police’s tear gas clouds a room of overturned furniture and shattered glass. Not only does Carne build on the masterful camerawork and mise-en-scène displayed in Port of Shadows, but his formal structuring of this bitterly nostalgic narrative makes Le Jour se Leve an indelibly moving portrait of France’s lost innocence as it headed into World War II.

Great form in the repetition of this shot, the second revealing a plunge into darkness.

Le Jour se Leve is not currently available to stream in Australia.

Ninotchka (1939)

Ernst Lubitsch | 1hr 50min

While screwball heroines of the 1930s were charming men with their flighty mannerisms and wily turns of phrase, silent film veteran Greta Garbo was setting herself on an entirely different comedic path. Nina Ivanovna Yakushova – or Ninotchka for short – is sullen, stern, and dead serious, arriving in France to conduct legal business for Russian clients. This is a character we might not attach to so easily were it not for Garbo’s utter deadpan, a marvellous screenplay co-written by Billy Wilder, and Ernst Lubitsch’s own sophisticated directorial touch, bringing a delicate air of whimsy and wit to even the most forthright proceedings.

Though the character of Ninotchka is largely absent for the opening 20 minutes, she is also the foundation upon which this film largely rests, as her arrival is heralded in advance by her bumbling clients searching for the mysterious Russian diplomat at a train station. As they stumble around looking for a man, Lubitsch shifts his camera very gradually to reveal a figure standing in the background – a woman in a sharp coat and long skirt, eyeing them off with disdain. This is not someone who caters to the fanciful needs and expectations of the men around her. Ninotchka is like a statue, unyielding, waiting for us to come to her.

Meeting Ninotchka in a wonderfully understated character introduction.
Total disdain, cutting through the whimsy of everything around her.

Then there is Count Leon d’Algout, her English adversary and new paramour, who, while not being quite as compelling a character, provides a more flamboyant counterpoint to her severity. Where she speaks of love as “a romantic designation for a most ordinary biological process,” he tenderly talks of Paris as a city split into two halves, but drawn amorously together. As the two look out at a view of the city lights, she disparages western culture as an indulgent, self-destructive culture, and from both their incongruent perspectives emerges one side of a conversation attempting flirtatious repartee, and another side maintaining a hilariously impassive rationality.

“You must admit that this doomed civilisation sparkles. Look at it. It glitters.”

“I do not deny its beauty, but it’s a waste of electricity.”

Not a dominant choice in the film, but there are some tracking shots here which underscore Lubitsch’s elegant style – introducing a new environment by pulling back from the window and into the office.

This is a woman who sees a trip to the powder room as an opportunity to spread Marxist propaganda, and yet for all of her detachment to the western world, there is indeed some truth in Leon’s poetic musings. While he grows sympathetic to her political ideologies, she begins to indulge a little in capitalistic luxuries, and all of a sudden, his talk of two halves becoming one moves just a little closer to reality. It takes a director as known for his classy “touch” as Lubitsch to smoothly integrate such clashing elements together under an elegantly blossoming romance, and then puncture that with brilliantly straight-faced bluntness. He may have directed films with a keener sense of subtextual wit, but none which feature as magnificent a character as Garbo’s comically deadpan Ninotchka.

There aren’t a whole lot of gorgeous shots in this film, but this is certainly among the few.

Ninotchka is currently available to stream on The Criterion Channel, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Wuthering Heights (1939)

William Wyler | 1hr 44min

The year 1939 was a tough one for any filmmaker who isn’t Victor Fleming to direct an adaptation of a classic novel, especially when they are competing with such resounding Technicolor successes as Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. But even in spite of being slightly overshadowed, William Wyler still manages to create the definitive cinematic interpretation of Wuthering Heights, delving deep into the relationship of Cathy and Heathcliff, two twisted lovers who cannot separate themselves from each other.

A handsome, young Laurence Olivier, exerting magnificent screen presence as Heathcliff.

Though much credit must be given to Emily Brontë for crafting such a compelling narrative and rich characters to begin with, the masterful translation from page to screen that writers Charles Macarthur, Ben Hecht, and an uncredited John Huston undertake shouldn’t be undervalued. There are sacrifices that are made from Brontë’s original text, most notably the entire second half about the children of Cathy, Heathcliff, and Hindley, but in implementing these changes the focus of Wuthering Heights remains on its core group of characters. Given that there are moments where some of the heavier emotional beats are little rushed over, it is indeed rather fortunate that this film isn’t any denser than it is.

At its centre is the strong-minded Catherine Earnshaw, whose relationship with surrogate brother and lover Heathcliff becomes the tragic obsession upon which everything else hangs. Merle Oberon doesn’t have the magnetism necessary to pulling off a famous literary heroine in the same way as someone like Vivien Leigh, though it must be a doubly tough task when trying to stay afloat in any scene against a handsome, young Laurence Olivier. How fitting he is for Heathcliff, being a relatively fresh-faced newcomer to the film industry and yet exuding a magnificent, self-possessed screen presence. He especially plays well into the air of mysterious confidence about Heathcliff, even before discovering his fortune as an adult. It is as if the brooding lover possesses some precognisant awareness that he is destined for greatness, and as such holds tightly onto oaths of vengeance against those who wrong him.

A combination of excellent blocking and deep focus in shots like these.

Over time, Heathcliff becomes the personification of Cathy’s childhood home, Wuthering Heights – or perhaps it is the other way round, with the manor absorbing his foreboding austerity, gradually dimming from bright, natural light into gloomy shadows. Wyler’s collaboration with Gregg Toland is an important one, as the cinematographer who would go on to shoot Citizen Kane puts his deep focus to excellent use here in capturing Wyler’s layered staging of his ensemble within the minimalistic, Dreyer-like architecture of the manor. Rusticated furniture, stairs, and beams that act as dividers between characters, tall, waxy candles rising out of sparse walls and tables – the impression Wyler creates in his stark mise-en-scene is that of a tomb, literally and figuratively trapping the souls of its inhabitants. The outdoors are for the living, where young lovers go to frolic and flirt, but within Wuthering Heights, a stale deathliness hangs in its air. Cathy even feels so bound to this place that she can’t imagine her spirit ending up anywhere else, foreshadowing her own real fate.

“I dreamt I went to heaven, and that heaven didn’t seem to be my home. And I broke my heart with weeping to come back to earth. And the angels were so angry, they flung me out in the middle of the heath, on top of Wuthering Heights.” 

Magnificent staging of actors within this austere, Gothic mise-en-scène, trapping the spirits of the living and deceased in the tomb-like manor.

Eventually, we arrive at Thrushcross Grange, and suddenly we find Wyler sweeping us into a whole new world. So often we are kept at a distance from it, peering through windows, doors, and over garden walls like an outsider, but when we move inside, the décor is everything that Wuthering Heights is not, opulently adorned with chandeliers and white columns. Wyler also lifts his camera off its tripod here to elegantly float it through the space, bringing a delicacy to this aristocratic world. In a ball scene the camera observes the dancing in the reflection of a wall mirror, before drifting through the splendidly-dressed crowd, rising up to a high angle, and then proceeding to move between rooms, letting this smooth shot play out for a full minute before cutting.

Splendid framing through windows at Thrushcross Grange, keeping Heathcliff on the outside of a world he doesn’t belong in.

If the sullen Wuthering Heights is Heathcliff, then Thrushcross Grange is Edgar, the rival suitor with from a wealthier, more stable background. Both tug at Cathy’s heart and mind, and yet in the end it isn’t even a conscious decision which decides her fate. “I am Heathcliff,” she proclaims, as if the choice was baked into the very fabric of her own intrinsic identity, thereby yielding to the dark allure of her eerie, limbo-like childhood home. With such a rigorous dedication to turning the architecture of these settings into characters, Wyler cuts right to the heart of Emily Brontë’s novel, submerging his tragic paramours in a ghostly melancholy that haunts them through life and death.

Wuthering Heights is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video and Kanopy.