M (1931)

Fritz Lang | 1hr 51min

It may be somewhat surprising to our modern sensibilities that M was such a controversial film upon its release, especially given its colossal influence on almost everything we watch today from police procedurals to crime movies. It isn’t its bluntness that makes it such a provocative film though, but rather its masterful use of subtext and signifiers to understand the mind of a reprehensible child killer. From the opening minutes where we watch the shadow of Peter Lorre’s profile slide across a wanted poster, to the simple image of a balloon floating into some power lines to mark the death of a child – Beckert’s crimes are conveyed through progressions of images and musical motifs that show us everything but his actual murders and, for its entire first act, his face. 

A chilling introduction to a great cinematic villain, and a highpoint of German Expressionism.
Hauntingly tragic visual symbolism – a balloon caught in powerlines marking the death of a child.

This is only one half of the story though. The other follows the police and crime rings tracking down the mysterious child killer for their own purposes, interrogating suspects and using a network of homeless beggars to keep an eye on the children of the city. The parallels between the law officers and criminals are closely drawn – both conspire in dark, dingy rooms about round tables, each possessing their own special abilities to achieve their goals. For once in their lives, they have a common target that unites them. That Beckert has made enemies of even the worst criminals paints him out as an abomination on a whole new level of depravity.

Fritz Lang’s camera is always finding reflections in glass windows and frames in the tight spaces between city buildings, archways, and even people. The crowds of the city are prone to hysteria when they believe they have found the culprit, but they are also capable of great cooperation when they put their minds to singular tasks. Without knowing his crimes, to them Beckert appears to be just another innocent citizen. But thanks to Lang’s framing of his short, dumpy figure, Beckert stands out to us. He doesn’t strike an intimidating figure, but in his bulging wide eyes and switch blade that suggests sexual arousal, Peter Lorre exudes revulsion. This isn’t a man who embodies murder in his very being, but rather an ordinary person who has let his most twisted desires get the better of him. When he realises he has been branded by an M, he panics. He can easily shed the marked coat, but the mere realisation that someone else has recognised the evil in him is the harshest damnation.

Striking imagery in the construction of this city through its architecture and frames.

Once he has been dragged into the unofficial courtroom, we keep seeing hands and arms reaching into the frame to grab Beckert by the shoulder, as if to accusingly catch him out over and over again. He is surrounded, and completely helpless. At his lowest and most vulnerable, he delivers an impassioned speech – but not the kind we were expecting from a man like this.

“Always, always I have to roam the streets and I always sense that someone is following me. It is me! And I shadow myself! Silently, yet I still hear it. Sometimes I feel like I’m hunting myself down. I want to run, run away for me. But I can’t! I can’t flee from myself! Must take the oath that it’s urging me on and run. I want off! I want off . . . Who knows what’s inside me? How it cries and screams inside when I have to do it.”

Beckert faced with his own sin, breaking down into guilt and panic.

It isn’t quite sympathy we feel for him, but rather pity for his own weaknesses. The visual threads that tether M back to the era of silent cinema are clear in the sped-up montages and expressionist images, but its use of sound, both in the whistling motif and in the payoff of Lorre’s final monologue, is also monumental in the history of film. It is certainly a highlight of both Lang’s and Lorre’s careers, but M is also disturbing in how it hints at a manipulative darkness in Germany a mere few years before the rise of the Nazi party.

Peter Lorre delivers one of the truly great screen performances of the 1930s as the grotesque serial killer and pedophile, Beckert.

M is available to stream on Kanopy, and available to rent or buy on YouTube.

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.

Duck Soup (1933)

Leo McCarey | 1hr 8min

If there was ever a serious challenger to auteur theory, it would be the collective group of the Marx Brothers. Leo McCarey is a decent director, and certainly brings a good eye for symmetry to some of Duck Soup’s ensemble musical numbers, but there’s no mistaking the mark of the Marx’s. Rapid-fire gags, tightly coordinated slapstick, subtle witticisms that undercut authority – this is 1930s comedy at its most zany and brutally eviscerating.
 
Whether one finds this sort of humour funny or not is a matter of taste. Though I have softened towards the Marx Brothers over time, I still don’t find myself laughing at every joke. Some physical gags run for longer than necessary, and bring everything else to a grinding halt. But it’s hard not to admire the go-for-broke commitment with which they attack every single quip.

Groucho Marx, the rare comedian who is both a gifted physical actor and a rapid-fire wordsmith.

Groucho, Chico, and Harpo’s characters are agents of chaos with streaks of blatant incompetence, and yet they are tasked with responsibilities of national significance. Rufus T. Firefly is appointed leader of Freedonia, “land of the brave and free” as its citizens proudly proclaim in their vague, generic national anthem. He announces upfront how terrible a leader he will be, but his followers celebrate him regardless, dancing along to his jaunty tune. All three of the brothers are easily distracted, going off on comedic tangents that incidentally make the high stakes of the narrative secondary to whatever has caught their immediate attention.

Doppelgangers, role switching, physical comedy, culminating in the brilliant mirror gag scene.

Firefly is a man of pettiness and great ego, riling himself up over a perceived insult from a foreign leader that never occurred, and thereby declaring a completely avoidable and unnecessary war. In a bombastically patriotic musical number, the rest of Freedonia is brought down to his level in their excitement for the coming conflict, falling on their backs and kicking their legs in the air like children. The chaotic absurdity of the Marx Brothers is infectious, and no one in Freedonia is immune to the hysteria they whip up.

Never afraid to match the ludicrousness of their real-life political targets with their own outlandish satire.

In the thick of battle, Firefly doesn’t distinguish between ally and foe, shooting happily at whoever is unfortunate enough to get in his way. While his soldiers die on the frontlines, the madman stays up in his tower, pulling down blinds as if that will stop the bombs flying through. There might be better comedic sequences elsewhere in the film, but this final act is where the full weight of the political satire sets in. This war doesn’t end with one side winning over the other, but with Firefly capturing his foe in battle and pegging fruit at him. By applying their knack for satire to the incompetent, narcissistic political leaders of the western world, the Marx Brothers ultimately hit on comedy gold and deliver perhaps the best work of their careers.

The absurd war finale, these political leaders acting like self-serving children.

Duck Soup is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.