A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Michael Powell | 1hr 44min

When it comes to the formal technique of shifting from black-and-white to colour that Michael Powell so effectively uses in A Matter of Life and Death, two other films come to mind – The Wizard of Oz and Stalker. All three movies are masterpieces and use this switch to contrast reality with a metaphysical dream space, and yet Powell’s work is using this device to an entirely different effect. Here, it is the Earth that is flooded with beautiful technicolour, and the surreal afterlife that is shot in black-and-white. Where The Wizard of Oz and Stalker celebrate the magic of other worlds, A Matter of Life and Death is in love with the joys of living.

Brilliant, vivid Technicolor photography on Earth, very distinguished from the monochrome afterlife.

The scenes of the afterlife are gorgeous in their own way though. It is made up of impressive set pieces, the two most notable being the stairway to heaven adorned with statues of historical figures, and the gigantic amphitheatre sitting inside a spiral galaxy. It isn’t exactly surrealist cinema, but there are unique images here that would not look out of place in a Luis Buñuel film, with the metaphor of the stairway entering the frozen operating room especially making powerful and imaginative visual statement.

One of Powell’s greatest set pieces, the stairway to heaven lined with statues of historical icons.
The stairway to heaven meets the operating theatre, one fate being decided in material and immaterial realms. Fantastic surrealism in this gorgeous finale.

In fact, the editing preceding this moment is impressive in itself, foreshadowing the eventual meeting of the afterlife and the real world. Peter’s fate is being decided in both places at once, by both brain surgeons and a jury of deceased men. It is left deliberately vague as to which group holds more power, as the entire afterlife could be all in Peter’s imagination. But the point remains – the metaphysical and physical worlds are inextricably bound to each other.

It is a tricky formal balance that Powell maintains in painting out this relationship, with both always offering counterpoints to each other. If life wins in one moment, then death will later hit back in a similar manner. This isn’t just in Peter’s story, but in Dr Reeves’ own fatal motorbike accident, foreshadowed earlier by a narrowly missed collision. Each of these characters’ lives is positioned on a knifepoint, and it is this fragility that makes them all the more precious.

A precarious balance between life and death in a simple, elegant transition. Powell starts with a close-up on this delicate flower on Earth, and then as his camera pulls back he washes away all colours in his shot, and the scene shifts to the afterlife without so much as a cut.

Peter sinks into the background in the final act which suddenly zooms out and adjusts to a massive scope, giving enormous weight to his life. His agency is taken away, and his fate rests in the hands of both friends and enemies with the power to grant him either life or death. All of history comes to bear witness to the decision, with rows upon rows of deceased people from different periods and cultures watching to see whether he will come and join their ranks.

Epic scope and scale – the people and civilisations of human history come to bear witness to this monumental trial.

The random Midsummer Night’s Dream reference serves to emphasise the afterlife as a relaxed, comedic, pastoral place, and much like the final lines of the play, A Matter of Life and Death essentially tells us in fewer words:

“If we shadows have offended,

Think but this and all is mended,

That you have but slumber’d here,

While these visions did appear.”

In short, everything we might have just watch may or may not be a dream. That will be left up to us.

Most of all though, A Matter of Life and Death is an allegory, manifesting the deciders of our fate in the afterlife. The romance never develops past the initial honeymoon phase, closing the film on the sweet, final words:

“We won.”
“I know, darling.”

And leaving them at that point is absolutely the right choice. Peter and June’s futures are undefined, but as long as they are alive it is in their hands.

Michael Powell’s long dissolves, blending images to create a masterful composition of faces.

A Matter of Life and Death is currently available to stream on SBS On Demand, and available to rent or buy on iTunes.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941)

Preston Sturges | 1hr 30min

Preston Sturges was known more for his sharp turns of phrase, pacey editing, and unrelenting slapstick than his mise-en-scène, but Sullivan’s Travels combines all of his usual trademarks with surprising flashes of visual beauty. These mostly appear in the final act when Sullivan winds up in a chain gang and the entire movie takes a far darker turn, but even before this point it works wonderfully as a quick-witted satire of Hollywood liberalism and privilege.

Sturges opens the film in media res, at what appears to be the climax of an entirely different movie.

“You see the symbolism of it? Capital and Labor destroy each other. It teaches a moral lesson. It has social significance.”

Sullivan is inspired. He wants to make a real movie about real issues, confronting problems that the average American faces every day.

An image of poverty that the wealthy imagine it to be – a rucksack and a baggy coat. Hilariously clueless, but formally setting up the hard-hitting third act well.

“But with a little sex,” his producers continue to insist. Therein lies the problem. If there was ever a studio that could authentically bring rough living conditions to the screen, it isn’t the one Sullivan works for, and Sullivan certainly shouldn’t be the one helming that project. The Italian neorealism movement would prove a few years later that cinema can absolutely treat this sort of subject matter with compassion and authenticity, but those movies were being made by filmmakers with firsthand experience. To Sullivan, stepping into the shoes of the impoverished would serve to assuage some of his class guilt, and he might make a tidy profit out of it on the side. Adding “a little sex” is the studio’s push to romanticise the subject matter, making it conventionally appealing for their audiences who just want a laugh.

A slapstick interlude placed with purpose and precision.

Sullivan’s Travels is also a direct response to early Hollywood comedies that abandoned humour in favour of serious, hard-hitting messages. Sturges’ approach is a complex balancing act of conflicting tones which many directors might struggle to pull off, but this is his specialty. He dances around the real darkness at the heart of the story for the first two acts, playing in the realm of slapstick comedy, irony, and meta-humour. Sullivan’s first attempt to understand the poor is really just him walking around with a rucksack and tattered coat, followed closely by a bus of security, food caterers, and a legal team. As he attempts to shake them off and the bus speeds after him, Sturges has fun sending everyone in it into a tizzy, falling over at all angles, one man even putting his head right through its ceiling. Then Veronica Lake is introduced, and the film delivers its most direct acknowledgement of its own genre conventions.

“How does the girl fit in the picture?”
“There’s always a girl in the picture?”

Credited only as “the woman”, she is there to serve the exact function stated in the text. She tags along, because it is what the film requires of her. But as an actress, Veronica Lake isn’t just filling a part. With her husky voice and plucky attitude she channels all of her charm and glamour into the role, stealing every second of screen time from her co-stars. She serves to underline the part of movies that audiences keep coming back for – that “little bit of sex”.

Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in two of their best performances, a perfect screwball couple.

So when Sullivan is suddenly assaulted, beaten unconscious, and sentenced to serve time in a chain gang, it is understandable why Lake is pushed to the background. It is a shocking narrative twist, but not entirely unexpected given how much time has been spent with Sullivan wondering it is like to live in poverty. In an earlier montage when he sleeps in a homeless shelter, he worries that his boots which contain his identification have been stolen, setting up the actual theft that takes place during this major plot shift. Now, he is stuck without a name or path back home.

The scene in which he is stalked by the homeless man looking for money is a stunner. Almost entirely silent, it is heavily expressionistic in the light and shadows that are thrown across the train tracks. He skulks behind staircases and trains puffing out steam in the dead of night, perfectly leading us into the darkest section of the film. We realise that all the comedy that has come before this point has merely been distracting us from the actual darkness at its heart, because suddenly all of that humour is gone. Without his status or identity to fall back on, Sullivan is no longer shielded from the dirtiness, violence, and roughness of “real” life.

Sturges’ camera suddenly becomes a lot more active in this final act. He isn’t trying to make this a truthful depiction of poverty, as his own screenplay has already made the argument for why Hollywood cinema isn’t suited to that. Instead he just wants to treat it sensitively, letting a sort of poignancy emerge that acts as a substitute for authenticity. The prisoners of Sullivan’s chain gang are welcomed to a Southern Black church, and Sturges makes the choice to frame the prisoners in gorgeous silhouette walking towards it, as the churchgoers sing a soulful rendition of “Let My People Go”. Inside the aisle symmetrically divides the church in two, and we gaze right down the middle at the prisoners’ feet moving towards us, chains clanking as they walk. It may be the slowest scene of any Sturges film, but this change of pace also marks the change in Sullivan’s character as he becomes more pensive.

An ambitious narrative taking a sudden dark turn. Sturges has never been so solemn, and he pulls it off with aplomb.

Dour atmospheres can’t last forever in Sturges films though. He gives us just enough moodiness so that when the comedy arrives again in the form of a classic Sturges montage, we eagerly embrace it. Newspaper headlines, studio producers running around barging into rooms, making phone calls, and getting on planes – Sullivan makes his way back to the glamourous city of Hollywood with a fresh outlook on life. Maybe the superficiality of the movies he makes is disconnected from reality, but so what? Disconnecting someone from reality might be the best thing you could do for someone whose reality is pretty terrible. Sturges’ real passion was screwball comedies, but as a comment on the limits of Hollywood moviemaking, this certainly seems like his most personal work.

Sullivan’s Travels is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Jour de Fête (1949)

Jacques Tati | 1hr 26min

Before Monsieur Hulot took over as Jacques Tati’s silent character of choice in the 50s, we had François the postman – not quite as a distinct a comedic icon as the lurching, overgrown child that would appear in his later films, but still operating on a clever enough level to send up western modernity through a Keaton-esque, full-bodied commitment to visual gags. As the small French village where he resides is setting up its Bastille Day celebrations in Jour de Fête, talk of America’s efficient mailing system has also arrived in town, and with it, François finds a new challenge: keep up with the times, or be left behind.

Along with being a skilled director of silent comedy, Tati has also proven himself to be a master of magnificent set pieces, reflected in the architecture of his later films ranging from quirky sculptures to monstrous dioramas. Perhaps he did not yet have the budget for these fantastic displays of visual grandeur, or maybe he had not developed his own artistic voice yet to understand their potential, but at times Jour de Fête feels slightly limited without bouncing Tati’s hilariously physical performance off these constructions. As it is, what we get is something a little more modest in ambition, yet also remarkably resourceful, making jokes out of a fence coming between a drunk François and his bike while he tries to mount it, or later a boom gate incidentally lifting it up out of sight.

Who would have guessed how many gags you could get out one bike – Tati’s style of comedy is endlessly inventive.

In true silent fashion, dialogue is kept to a minimum so that music and sound effects can take over, leading us lightly through comedic episodes with accordions, vibraphones, trumpets, and a chamber of jovial strings. Within this soundscape, François is given his own motif in the form of the rattling bike bell, announcing his presence like his own whimsical, ringing musical theme.

Though he is hopelessly devoted to his neighbours and is always sure to offer a helping hand wherever he can, François is also the butt of many jokes, and thus feels that he has something to prove. With the American post office setting an example of efficiency in the western world, he takes it on himself to match their productivity on his own, leading into a directly Buster Keaton-inspired sequence that allows Tati the chance to prove his own talents as both an incredibly physical actor and director.

François rides in with his bicycle, and emerges on the balcony a few second later as the restaurant owner tosses it out – all playing out in a single wide shot. This isn’t a silent film, but Tati is very much following the footsteps of Keaton and Chaplin with these kinds of visual gags using different levels and doorways creatively with minimal cutting.

In superbly staged wide shots we watch a series of elaborate pratfalls play out, each one escalating with François’ struggle to keep up with himself, overtaken by the “American style” of mail delivery. When one recipient doesn’t take their letter in time, he simply leaves it wedged underneath their horse’s tail before speeding off again, and at one point it looks as if his bike takes on a life of its own, zooming down the street while he is left chasing it from behind.

Much like Keaton, Tati puts his full body into his stunts as he rides full-speed into a river.

The sheer velocity with which Tati moves through his gags in this fantastic sequence can only be halted with a stunt that sees François ride full speed over the edge of the road into a river, finally capping his mad dash with an obstacle he cannot overcome. There may be plenty of cynical directors out there who dissect the industrial march of capitalistic progress with a much sharper blade, but Tati has no such aspirations with this sort of subject matter. In Jour de Fête, the most we can do is point and laugh at the absurdity of such grand ambitions, before falling back on the reliable affability of one humble postman.

Tati’s camera dollying forward into this window frame as the fair leaves town, delivering a sweet farewell.

Jour de Fête is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel and available to rent or buy on iTunes.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Orson Welles | 1hr 28min

It only took one year following the resounding success of Citizen Kane for Orson Welles to follow up what has oft been dubbed the greatest film of all time with a project that could have equalled it in artistic grandeur, had it not been snatched from his hands in post-production. The Magnificent Ambersons floats along like a whispered echo of a bygone era, recounting the downfall of an entire family empire brought about by one man’s obstinate resistance to progress, fitting neatly into the string of Shakespeare-inspired tragedies that defined his early film career. Perhaps this might feel more like an epic family saga had RKO Pictures not hacked away at it without his permission, and even more disappointing is the tacked on happy ending forced by the studio. Considered as a whole though, these flaws are but minor taints on Welles’ beautifully elegiac narrative, and no amount of cutting can erase the visual bravura on display.

Where Charles Foster Kane’s manor Xanadu acts a tremendous inflation of man’s ego to ludicrous proportions, the Amberson Mansion has the look of a Gothic tomb, rich with period décor and shadows crowding out every single frame. Or at least, that is what George Minafer transforms it into after selfishly taking control of his family’s future. Our first introduction to it comes after a prologue built heavily on montages and a sombre voiceover from Welles himself, running through the history of the Ambersons who prospered as the wealthiest family in their late 19th century Midwestern town. These people are socialites and aristocrats around whom a grand mythology is built, with the narration and dialogue of gossipy neighbours forming a sort of conversation together in a storybook call-and-response manner. A vignette effect often hangs over the exteriors of the mansion here, relegating this period of great fortune to an antiquated era, but it is only when we catch up to the present that Welles finally blows open its doors and tracks his camera forwards into its bright, ornate halls, where parties gather to bask in the opulence of its gorgeous architecture.

A vignette effect applied over this prologue bringing us into the late 19th century, unfolding like a photo album beneath a sombre voiceover.

From a visual perspective, there is little that separates The Magnificent Ambersons and Citizen Kane. The detailed décor that clutters visual compositions and frames characters within classic Wellesian low angles brings a majestic weight to the family’s historical and cultural presence, and most spectacular of all its set pieces is that mighty octagonal staircase that looms over the main hall. From the ground floor, Welles will occasionally tilt his camera up to catch sight of characters standing atop it like an imposing tower, but from the inside it feels more like a strangely twisted labyrinth, trapping the Ambersons across different levels and between bannisters.

Superb staging within the Amberson Mansion and especially around the staircase, offering the perfect opportunity for Welles to shoot these imposingly staged high and low angles. They are encased within its boundaries which wind through the layers of the frame.

At the centre of this family is George, son of Wilbur Minafer and Isabel Amberson, and heir to the estate. The irony that he does not even carry the surname of the legacy he is trying to uphold is hard to ignore, as he instead takes the name of his dull, unextraordinary father who passed away after losing a great amount of money. When a lover from Isabel’s past, automobile manufacturer Eugene Morgan, re-enters their lives, the biggest blow yet is landed to the family’s legacy – not from Eugene, who may be able to secure the family’s financial future, but from George himself, who detests everything this upwardly mobile entrepreneur stands for.

The layers to George’s hatred are multi-faceted. He states that his mother remarrying would be an insult to the memory of his father, though we know that he never exactly held Wilbur in great esteem either. On a more psychological level, there are Oedipal undertones to George’s objectives, wishing to be the sole man in his mother’s life to prove his own value. In terms of social attitudes towards the shifting technologies of the world, his beliefs are purely regressive and clouded by emotion, as he prefers the nostalgia of the past to whatever future Eugene is involved in bringing about. From atop a horse-drawn carriage, he laughs at his mother’s suitor trying to get his automobile out of a thick patch of snow, though when he finds himself tossed from his sleigh it is the “horseless carriage” which comes to the rescue – an unintended slight which George doesn’t forget.

It isn’t just the mansion which makes for wonderful compositions, but this snowy landscape sets the perfect scene for George and Eugene’s first major disagreement.

Eugene though does not possess the same arrogance as George, even going out his way to avoid arguments over matters of ideology. He does not reject the idea that automobiles will be nuisances to society, but he does take a more nuanced perspective, recognising that their presence will inevitably change the world in subtle ways. It will not be a utopia, but it will be an environment one must participate in to survive, and therein lies the primary difference between these two men fighting for Isabel’s heart. After Eugene is locked out of the Amberson Mansion and barred from seeing his ailing lover on her death bed, it descends into sombre darkness, each beautiful piece of furniture covered with white cloths to obscure the pride of a family that can no longer hold claim to its great reputation. Major Amberson, George’s grandfather, soon passes, and Aunt Fanny sinks into hysteria, leaving the family a mere shadow of what it once was.

Stark expressionism emerging as this tragedy unfolds. The Magnificent Ambersons may very well be Citizen Kane’s equal in visual prowess.

As George wanders the streets of the town that now looks entirely foreign to that which he grew up in, the whispering voiceover returns, luring the man towards his eventual comeuppance that, in Welles’ original vision for the film, might have brought about his death. It is certainly fitting that it is an automobile which brings about the downfall he has been defiantly heading towards for a long time, but it is saddening that what follows is a contrived, abbreviated conclusion that lets George survive and make amends with Eugene offscreen. To put this in perspective though, this is but one flaw in a film that it is otherwise virtually perfect, and there isn’t much of an argument to be had that it completely undercuts the success of the rest of its success – the crisp, deep focus cinematography, the expressionistic lighting, or even the quiet ruminations over progress and those who are left behind. The Magnificent Ambersons would be the first of many films Welles would struggle against studios over to maintain artistic control, but it speaks to the power of his directorial voice that it remains such a compelling elegy to historical eras, lost and forgotten.

Crisp, deep focus cinematography and remarkable blocking. The weak ending can’t erase the rest of Welles’ monumental cinematic achievement.

The Magnificent Ambersons is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Laura (1944)

Otto Preminger | 1hr 28min

Hanging above the fireplace in the apartment of a recent murder victim is a portrait of a woman with a sultry gaze. This is Laura, the young lady whose body was apparently found lying in the doorway with a shotgun blast to the head, and whose visage continues to haunt the place with an ethereal presence. She lingers in the back of shots like an extra character in an ensemble of suspects, as much a part of Otto Preminger’s splendidly staged compositions as anyone else, though it is also through flashbacks that Gene Tierney’s performance builds on that charisma with, as her mentor Waldo Lydecker would call it, “authentic magnetism.”

There are no two better words to describe Preminger’s dynamic camerawork in Laura either. Certainly his ability as a director has always been married to his long takes, moving through sets in majestic manoeuvres as effortlessly as his small but powerful camera motions that shift the tones of entire scenes. But here the repeated choice to continuously track in on Laura’s face from low angles draws us in with it, endowing her with a visual magnetism that is perfectly fitted to Tiernan’s innate charm and the compelling narrative intrigue.

The camera always pushing in on Tierney’s face, a singular active movement that draws us into her aura.
The portrait of Laura becoming its own entity in Preminger’s blocking of actors.

Beyond its fascination with specific people is the camera’s applied scrutiny to objects, moving through apartments and the odd artefacts which crowd them out like an obsessive sleuth. Right after the opening credits play over the portrait of Laura, we fade into the first scene where a sculpture of an Asian goddess stands on a small pedestal, framed on either side by a candelabra and a display case standing in the foreground. Slowly, we drift to the right, observing the precious items sitting on the glass shelves, discovering an ornate grandfather clock, and then finally opening up to the larger apartment where we meet Detective Mark McPherson inspecting ornaments with a similar intensity.

In such a manner, Preminger often draws on a Sternbergian style of cluttered mise-en-scène to obstruct his frames with various pieces of décor, creating a dynamic environment through which his ever-moving camera continues to find new details to absorb itself in. And as we later discover, a few of these turn out to be far more relevant to the narrative than we ever expected. Mirrors also remain significant throughout in Preminger’s meticulous arrangements of actors and mise-en-scène, always keeping in mind those hidden, complex truths which underlie these characters’ motivations.

The Josef von Sternberg influence is massive – Tierney takes on the Marlene Dietrich role in becoming an endless source of the camera’s fascination in Laura, but Preminger’s dedication to creating these intricate frames obstructed by crowded decor in the foreground is impressive.

Lined with a series of shocking twists, this narrative is one that continues to test our understanding of subjective minds and reality, whereby long-gone ghosts are resurrected seemingly through the sheer power of wishful longing. Even McPherson, this apparently neutral force of justice, cannot resist getting caught up in the aura that surrounds Laura. In one scene as he falls asleep beneath her portrait, Preminger slowly tracks in on his face before pulling out again, appearing to bring us into a new world through the detective’s mind that teeters on the edge of dream and reality. The lack of clear motivation in this camera movement immediately puts us on edge, leaving the astounding developments that follow under a cloud of disbelief and apprehension.

A push in on McPherson’s face as he falls asleep, while the portrait of Laura hangs over him – is what happens next a dream sequence or reality?

This is the film noir atmosphere that Preminger so thoroughly understands and infuses in Laura, gradually destabilising McPherson’s perception of truth and security, though there is also a clearly Hitchcockian leaning to his precision. Much like the master of suspense himself, Preminger’s slow, deliberate camerawork can draw out the painstaking tension of a shot as simple as a door creaking open, inching forward ever so slowly while a clock ticks in the background. As the killer emerges from it and prepares to strike again, their target is listening his disembodied voice read out a poem over a radio broadcast, indirectly describing his own reprehensible motives.

The layers of character work here are impeccable, organically weaving in with the film’s camerawork and blocking so that they may all eventually wind back to that one figure at its centre, whose allure often proves to be more of a curse than a blessing. Whether those forces be good, evil, or purely neutral, even death is no obstacle in their paths to get to Laura.

Remarkable use of mirrors all through Laura, absorbing the images of these actors into the ornate set.
Unmistakably a Preminger film, though the expressionist use of lighting and angles to create this unstable noir atmosphere is also superb.

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

Shadow of a Doubt (1943)

Alfred Hitchcock | 1hr 48min

In this story of serial killers and sinister secrets, there is an eerie motif of ballroom dancers twirling and waltzing in tight formations that Alfred Hitchcock frequently cuts to in the midst of thrilling developments. It is an image of duelling doubles, male and female, each of whom perform mirrored movements in perfect synchronicity, and yet serve no narrative purpose other than underscoring that darkly fated relationship at the centre of Shadow of a Doubt. “The same blood flows through our veins Charlie,” murmurs Uncle Charles to his niece, their inseparable connection drawn right down to their parallel names. Even while considering the wretched corners of the human psyche that Alfred Hitchcock has so frequently probed all through his career, perhaps this is his most disturbing – a twisted portrait of two Charlies, uncle and niece, locked in a secret seeping with subtext of incest, grooming, and sexual abuse.

A brilliant motif of doubles and dancers weaved all through this story in long dissolves.

Often just as fascinating as Hitchcock’s obsession with human perversities is the hyper-focused manner in which he invites us into them, as all it takes is a cutaway to a newspaper suspiciously stuffed in a pocket or an inscription on an emerald ring to place the same curiosity in our minds as that which his characters possess. Our gaze is often attached to these objects as intensely as we fixate on a suspected killer, in one scene slowly tracking in with unabashed curiosity on his profile until he turns to face us directly, and the camera suddenly freezes in terror. Therein lies the suspense of Hitchcock’s narrative and camerawork – we may submit to our own yearning for answers to the mystery of the Merry Widow Murderer, but as we see in the case of young Charlie, it is a dangerous and potentially deadly game.

A slow movement forwards, intrigued by Uncle Charles’ horrifying monologue, before he turns and looks us right in the eye, catching us right out.

In his crafting of such psychological darkness, Hitchcock digs down into expressionist lighting and mise-en-scene as its visual foundation, at one point trapping Charlie behind the shadows of stair bannisters cast up against the wall by low lights, imprisoning her in the aura of evil that her uncle has brought with him on this family visit. Though there is initially a sly sexual tension between them, their relationship evolves into one of menacing mistrust. “Who would believe you?” he teases her when she begins to consider turning him in, and the sexual abuse allegory grows even more potent when he tells her that it would “kill her mother” should she expose his lies.

Hitchcock at the top of his game when it comes to his expressionistic use of lighting and shadows, here shining a bright lamp over Charlie’s head while keeping the dangerous Uncle Charles in the dark.

Though more known for his pairings with Orson Welles, it is in this collaboration with Hitchcock that Joseph Cotten fully embraces the spotlight, shrewdly containing huge amounts of murderous rage beneath a thin veneer of respectability. With such concentration in his study of his subject’s guilty observations and reactions, Hitchcock turns Uncle Charles into one of the most compelling characters of both their careers, as a man so consumed by a densely nihilistic philosophy that the only rules of existence left to abide by are the depraved voices inside his own head.

“The world’s a hell. What does it matter what happens in it?”

He is no doubt a sad, lonely person, and for those caught up in his web of deceit and murder, the world becomes just as much of an isolating hell them as it is for him. It is especially after Charlie’s suspicions are confirmed by the inscription on the ring he has gifted her that she becomes more alienated than ever, as the camera is lifted up in a magnificent crane shot away from a close-up of that piece of jewellery into a wide with one smooth, deliberate camera movement, forcefully estranging her within the long shadows of a cavernous, gloomy library. And then, just as we have seen before, Hitchcock takes this moment to return to that motif of the perfectly synchronised dancers, and with a single crushing blow he delivers the paradox at the heart of Shadow of a Doubt – that infectious isolation which spreads from one to another through the disclosure of a dark, crushing secret, binding the two together in a complex dance of abuse and manipulation that no one else could possibly understand.

A remarkable crane shot pulling us away from Charlie into this dark, haunting wide, isolating her in the shadowy library.

Shadow of a Doubt is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Out of the Past (1947)

Jacques Tourneur | 1hr 37min

It only makes sense that a classical Hollywood director with as thorough a grounding in cinematic horror as Jacques Tourneur can so easily slip into film noir and flex his expressionistic style in this adjacent yet still distinct genre. It almost doesn’t matter that Out of the Past’s narrative is eventually pushed to the point of inscrutability, especially given how much Tourneur turns this into a strength of the piece, stacking up lies upon lies from supposed allies and enemies trying to outsmart each other. The manner in which private detective Jeff Markham manipulates a fresh murder scene to confound the killer who herself is using it to manipulate others is almost amusing in its complexity. As with all great noirs though, such convoluted entanglements are deliberately undercut by the atmosphere of impending doom hanging over antiheroes and villains alike, threatening to send them all to early graves in spite of their intricate, egotistic endeavours.

Being a film as fascinated by the inescapability of old sins and crimes as it is, Out of the Past remains perhaps one of the purest noirs in its fatalistic pull. Jeff’s own destiny is etched out from the start in his decision to run away with Kathy, the mysterious woman he has been hired to track down, though Tourneur initially brings us into the narrative after all this has already taken place. As far as we know at this point, Jeff is a gas station attendant working in a small mountain town, dating a good-natured country girl named Ann, and it is only when summoned by a shady figure named Whit that he divulges through flashbacks and voiceover the shady past that he has been trying to outrun.

Robert Mitchum playing a sly, manipulative detective, caught in these magnificently claustrophobic frames.

Such introspective presentations of urban and rural regions may even seem directly parallel to Shakespeare’s own contemplative considerations of court versus country life, whereby the latter represents a place of healing from the politics of the former. This is indeed the motivation for Jeff at least, who is ready to make a fresh start in Bridgeport after getting tangled up in murder, theft, and fraud in the city. As Tourneur lays out in the very first shot of a crossroads sign displaying the directions of both though, there is a connection that joins one to the other, and it is along this route that the gloom and danger of Jeff’s old life invades his new.

The very first shot – a sign showing the route between the city and the country, the past and the present.

Robert Mitchum finds the ideal role for his screen persona in Jeff Markham, a man whose dialogue sizzles with sharp, succinct turns of phrase. “Tell me why you’re so hard to please,” Kathy teases him. “Take me where I can tell you,” he replies with understated cheek, and this wit very much defines his nonchalant, pointed style all through Out of the Past. His fedora and trench coat might make him appear like any number of other hardboiled black-and-white detectives, and yet the dark charisma he carries rivals Humphrey Bogart’s, much of it coming from that deep, resonant voice which is just as suited for narration as it is for short, quick-witted responses.

Tourneur’s magnificent horror lighting revealing itself in scenes like these – a lamp toppling off its table as the door blows open, throwing this room into darkness and changing its atmosphere in an instant.

And yet as much as he acts like it, Jeff is not some cool, untouchable figure removed the danger of the piece. Around him, Tourneur’s lighting flickers from bright to starkly expressionist as quickly as it takes a lamp to topple off a table, and within the dark enclosures of mansions, apartments, and isolated cabins the detective is visually trapped behind drapes and doorways. Indeed, there always seems to be constant attention on Tourneur’s behalf to the manner in which characters are made vulnerable against others, often shrunken against those who spy on them from behind. Even when it isn’t at the forefront of the narrative, Tourneur is quietly underscoring that lurking threat that comes from behind, fatalistically drawing Jeff back into those past transgressions he would much rather hide from than confront directly and have to carry the weight of in all their hideous, damning indictments.

Layering of actors across foreground and background, often making Jeff a vulnerable figure.

Out of the Past is currently not available to stream in Australia.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

John Huston | 2hr 6min

At times it feels as if every post-1940s representation of greed on film in some way comes back to that immortal figure of madness at the centre of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The image of Fred C. Dobbs talking to himself as he spirals into a whirlwind of paranoia bleeds into the characterisation of Gollum from The Lord of the Rings and Spike Lee’s screenplay for Da 5 Bloods. John Huston’s writing of a potentially great man whose hollow pursuit of riches leaves him with a corrupt, rotten soul also manifests in the arc of Jordan Belfort from The Wolf of Wall Street, as well as Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. There is something distinct about Dobbs’ treachery though, especially with it being so rooted in Western genre archetypes that form part of a greater narrative about humanity’s attempts to tame wild, natural lands beyond their control.

The adventure and shooting typically found in other films of this genre is not entirely missing here, though it does play a secondary role to the drama unfolding among the three American prospectors traversing Mexican mountainsides, and their conflicts with the locals. They do not belong in these parts, but the older ex-miner Howard possesses a little bit more experience, providing sage counsel and wisdom in their endeavours. “I know what gold does to men’s souls,” he warns ominously, and Huston thus sets in motion a cautionary tale that turns the weak-willed Dobbs into a mistrustful, insatiable, and vindictive creature, prepared to kill his friends in anticipation of their betrayal, as well as to enact his own. As he lays down behind the campfire with a haunted, wide-eyed expression, the flames continue to flicker up higher and higher, roasting him in a hellish image of spiritual damnation.

A striking, hellish image as Dobbs descends deeper into his madness.
There is a solid argument for this as Bogart’s single greatest performance, and one of the best of the 1940s.

With such magnificent direction backing it up, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is hugely significant in solidifying Huston’s status as an all-time great filmmaker, though it is just as much a major achievement for Humphrey Bogart who steps far outside the realm of hardboiled detective roles to deliver a ground-breaking performance of pure insanity. He is in full command of his rambling monologues, many of which are directed to no one but himself, and in close-ups Huston sticks us with his sweaty, tanned face, at times twisted in wicked, cackling expressions. In the darkness Dobbs appears as a truly formidable figure, though in the broad light of day Huston’s superb use of deep focus cinematography and open, natural spaces allows some remarkable formations in the blocking of his actors, painting out this web of thorny relationships in great detail.

Magnificent blocking integral to Huston’s visual storytelling.

Perhaps the most important element of Huston’s staging is the framing of Dobbs and his companions against these graceful yet imposing mountains, wearing them down with bandits, deadly animals, and collapsing goldmines. Even as Dobbs digs deeper into his delusion, there remains an organic, circular flow to this environment. While the younger prospectors don’t dwell too long on the damage they have caused, Howard recognises the need to respect to the ecosystem he has plundered by closing up the “wounds” he has made in it.

Staggering actors through the foreground and background, making use of the landscape’s natural terrain.

Even then though, there remains a strange, auspicious mysticism in the earth’s efforts to claim back that which was taken from it. Friends and strangers alike murder each other to claim ownership over those tiny grains of gold extracted from the mountainside, and yet all their self-centred efforts are so quickly undercut by the simple winds of fate blowing in from across the ranges. “The gold has gone back to where we found it,” Howard roars with laughter, recognising in equal awe and amusement the absurd joke that the universe has played on them. Not everyone gets off so lightly, especially as Dobbs finds himself cowering beneath the lethal blows of bandits who send him to an end fitting of his obsessive mistrust. In this way, poetic justice finds its way home in each of Huston’s character arcs, orchestrated by some omnipresent force of nature that gives and takes in cyclical motions, ultimately carrying The Treasure of the Sierra Madre through to an end that leaves almost everyone no better or worse off than before – minus those individuals who tried and failed to exploit the earth’s resources in order to build self-serving worlds of delusion and greed.

Dobbs’ fate catching up with him, revealed in a single haunting reflection.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

His Girl Friday (1940)

Howard Hawks | 1hr 32min

There may be screwball comedies that can match His Girl Friday in its sheer narrative lunacy, but Howard Hawks’ satirical take on the newspaper industry stands unparalleled in its breakneck pacing which, when combined with its rhythmic, rattling screenplay and the verbal gifts of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, becomes an accelerating effort to keep outdoing its own hysteria. Hawks himself can turn a phrase and orchestrate performances like he is the one delivering them, as his actors breathlessly zip between lines to the point that their dialogue begins to overlap and multiple conversations emerge all at once, creating similar chaotic soundscapes to those that Robert Altman would innovate thirty years later. It is curious that Altman never used this device to create a film about journalism though, as within this newsroom setting Hawks discovers the potential of its seemingly permanent state of urgency, and charms his audience into a whirlwind of words and wits.

Even as the master of gender comedy sets a ridiculous standard in his own madcap narrative pace, his leads are more than up to the challenge of pushing it even further, all in service of their characters who insistently chase up crucial information and loose ends across a number of plot threads. This complex balancing act poses a tricky challenge for Russell in particular, as although former reporter Hildy Johnson finds herself drawn towards a quiet life of marriage and children, she also simultaneously falls prey to the temptation of re-entering her old career as a newspaperwoman, where her spark of passion ignites into a full blaze and lures her into a primal feeding frenzy.

Rosalind Russell, a wicked force of comedy here in His Girl Friday, and an appropriately loud costume to match that persona.

From the moment she walks into the newsroom in her matching zig-zagged hat and coat as if they were entirely normal fashion choices, Russell owns every moment she is onscreen. Not only does she prove her ability to match Grant with every comedic beat, but at one point she even demands that Hawks’ camera keep up with her as she frantically moves side to side, switching between concurrent phone calls. It is a well-timed dance she is leading here, and one that points to her own skilful characterisation of a competent woman so entranced by her work that she barely hears her fiancé, Bruce, threaten to leave her.

Not only is the promise of good news story too much to pass up, but when the escaped convict at its centre winds up in her own office, the chance to use her own unique position to take down a corrupt politician is entirely irresistible. Of course, it takes a few minor manipulations on the behalf of Walter, her ex-lover and editor, to keep her around. In a hilarious running gag that he sets in motion, he ensures that Bruce continues getting arrested so that he remains out of the way, though this situation only escalates when the heavily foreshadowed arrival of his mother finally transpires to complicate things further.

Subplots comically punctuated by the slamming of doors open and shut, efficiently keeping the narrative moving along.

As this kidnapping sublot contributes to the overall tapestry of this narrative, it is just one of several irreverent plot threads dealing with the darker side of humanity, including attempted suicide and death threats. There is a certain hint of amorality here, as while such weighty topics pass through the story, these journalists brush them off with comical ease as nothing more than minor distractions to be dealt with in the moment and never considered again.

Many screwball comedies get by without being overly attentive to their visuals, but there is some superb staging of ensembles in this newsroom.

Rapid montages and brisk camera movements can be found here to match the pace of dialogue, but for the most part it is in deftly staged compositions of actors within this office of low-slung lamps that the film is visually elevated to a level that few other screwball comedies have reached, pairing some of Hawks’ greatest direction with one of his most masterful screenplays. Even as doors slam open and shut in markers of narrative threads jumping in and out of this story of their own accord, he never once loses control of His Girl Friday’s eccentric rhythms, sparring, and effervescent chemistry.

Among the best shots of the film in its fantastic lighting and camera placement, as Hildy visits the imprisoned Earl Williams.

His Girl Friday is available to stream on The Criterion Channel and Amazon Prime Video, and available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Google Play.

Christmas in July (1940)

Preston Sturges | 1hr 7min

Not much about Christmas in July is terribly festive, but it is a fitting title nonetheless given how much Preston Sturges fills the film with his own brand of wholesome benevolence. Our hero, Jimmy MacDonald, is an office worker lost in a sea of desks. He has his eyes firmly set on the American Dream, and then one day a prank gone wrong sees him believe he has won $25,000 cash in a slogan competition for a coffee company. The instant that he believes in his own success, his entire attitude changes. His sudden boost in confidence is enough to earn him a promotion, an office, and a personal secretary, with even the executive of the company running the contest believing that he is the real winner. As for the actual slogan itself – it is nothing less than lame, wordy, and confusing.

“If you can’t sleep at night, it’s not the coffee, it’s the bunk.”

And yet there is something endearing about Jimmy’s whole-hearted conviction in the cleverness of his quip. Within Sturges’ world of naive, incompetent businessman, such self-assured belief is infectious, as the slogan’s apparent success spurs on a surge in popularity until everyone who once saw it as a meagre attempt at humour convinces themselves of its brilliance. After all, it won a contest judged by a board of professionals. How could it not be? Even Jimmy’s own boss uses it as the basis of his own judgement.

“I think your ideas are good because they sound good to me. But I know your ideas are good because you won this contest over millions of aspirants.” 

The comedy in Christmas in July is a little more low-key than the usual Sturges outing, especially since the focus isn’t so much on the slapstick or zany antics than being a satire of American success. But his trademark commitment to running gags and expeditious pacing is present even this early in his career, and the faith individuals place in mainstream opinions rather than thinking for themselves is a perfect target for a director with such a skill in crafting farcical escalations. A more cynical film would make Jimmy a selfish egomaniac, but here he is a sincerely good, compassionate man, and as such it isn’t hard to get behind his stroke of good fortune, or conversely fear his inevitable downfall. It may not belong among his greatest works, but thanks to Sturges’ comical screenplay, Christmas in July strikes an easy tonal balance of skepticism towards corporate America and a comfortable, agreeable comedy.

Christmas in July is not currently available to stream in Australia.