Late Spring (1949)

Yasujirō Ozu | 1hr 48min

The cycles of human life in Yasujirō Ozu’s domestic dramas are as natural as seasonal changes. Parents grow old, children move out of home, and their youthful innocence matures into worldly wisdom, guiding them forward into new experiences. This is the transitory period represented in the title Late Spring, where the period of birth and youth for 27-year-old Noriko is coming to an end. Chishū Ryū’s gently spoken widower Shukichi is not the obstacle to his daughter’s inevitable departure, but it is rather her own reservations about marriage and abandoning her father which creates friction in their household.

Setsuko Hara is radiant here in her first of many fruitful collaborations with Ozu, becoming the emotional centre around which the layers of his mise-en-scène and narrative are delicately formed. Her perpetual, beaming smile draws the camera’s attention in wide and mid-shots alike, and even continues through her savage digs at her father’s friend’s remarriage, calling it “filthy” and “indecent” without so much as a scowl cross her face.

Even outside his perfectly arranged interiors, Ozu keeps his eye for framing with exterior modern architecture.

From Noriko’s perspective, building a new life outside of her current home would be a selfish act. Just the thought alone is deeply upsetting, threatening to undermine the security she shares with her father. As far as she is concerned, “Marriage is life’s graveyard” – or at least, those are the words her friend puts in her mouth. At the moment that Aunt Masa starts pushing her strongly in this direction and reveals that her own father is planning to remarry their widowed neighbour, that smile that Hara is known for is wiped from her face, and it is a long time before it reappears.

When she’s smiling, it’s impossible to imagine Hara’s face with any other expression, and then there is a marked shift in her demeanour upon discovering her father’s plans to remarry. This shot mirrors nicely with the shot in the final scene with Ryū in a strikingly similar position.

Indeed, Ozu’s thoughtful framing of Noriko in his open doorways, funnelled corridors, and shoji screens essentially forms a protective shell around her, deeply connecting the young woman and her family to each book, chair, and piece of laundry on the clothesline. There is substantial beauty in this mundanity, and it is here where he develops his formally rigorous aesthetic as extensions of his characters. Even why they aren’t visible, their presence is still suggested by the pieces of themselves left behind – a pair of sitting cushions on the floor, a coat left hanging on a rack, and a hat resting on a briefcase collectively break up the harsh angles and lines of the living room’s architecture with hints of humanity. Though Noriko possesses no romantic interest in her engaged friend Hattori, Ozu still underscores their tender pairing through his framing of their parallel bikes in the foreground of one particularly elegant composition, mirroring the couple as they walk off into the distance together.

Ozu is a master of mise-en-scène, but his talent doesn’t announce itself loudly. There is precision in the placement of each cushion, coat, and hat, leaving traces of characters around the scene even when they aren’t present.
Ozu segmenting the frame through these vertical lines.
There is also of course a depth of field to Ozu’s staging as well, containing characters within their frames, and returning to the hanging laundry here as a consistent visual presence.

Ozu continues this still life artistry in more mystifying imagery as well, most famously that which briefly lingers on a vase in an inn where Noriko lies next to her father, coming to terms with their inevitable separation. Generations of film scholars would go on to pick apart the meaning of this simple cutaway, but on a purely formal level, it ruptures the scene’s pacing like a comma halfway through a sentence, gently splitting up a pair of close-ups that are almost identical, besides her smile which vanishes from one shot to the next.

The infamous, enigmatic vase cutaway. So much has been written on its meaning, though formally it fits effortlessly into the pacing and flow of the scene.

In the consistently low angles as well, there is also a deep humility baked into Ozu’s perspective that never let us look down on any character or their environment. The seconds before an actor enters a scene and the seconds after they exit are spent in quiet reflection with the room, finding traces of life that exist beyond human drama. These are also frequently blended in with his trademark pillow shots, drifting across still images of ancient Japanese pagodas, commercial trainlines, and modern interiors, leaving us never quite sure if a shot stands alone as a quiet observation, or whether it is about to open a scene. All we can do when they appear is consider both with equal significance. Ozu may be just as equally skilled an editor as his Japanese contemporary Akira Kurosawa, but rather than cutting to drive forward his plotting, he uses it as a tool to step back and contemplate the narrative from afar.

Pagodas, train lines, domestic interiors – Ozu’s pillow shots do an immense amount of work laying out the coexistence of tradition and modernity.

By sensitising us to the intricacies of the world around his characters, Ozu is also doing a lot of work to show the specific setting of the post-war society they live in – one which is striving for the future, while trying to hang onto its nostalgic heritage. Given this context, it’s easy to empathise with both sides of Late Spring’s core conflict, though as Noriko finds herself falling for the man she has been set up with, the harmony Ozu settles on possesses a strange melancholy.

Here, his pillow shots step up in frequency, floating us along lyrical meditations of the fate that has befallen this engaged woman once doggedly against getting married, and the lonely father who now mourns the void left in his home. Not that he would ever let that show – the notion that he would be remarrying was merely a lie he constructed to nudge her along without feelings of guilt, and now as she departs, he gifts her his own words of wisdom in her search for contentment.

“Happiness isn’t something you wait around for. It’s something you create yourself. Getting married isn’t happiness. Happiness lies in the forging of a new life shared together. It may take a year or two, maybe even five or ten. Happiness comes only through effort. Only then can you claim to be man and wife.”

Late Spring settles on a strange melancholy in its final minutes, returning to an iconic Ozu shot though now with its frame darkened.

As he sits alone in his now-dark home, he slowly and methodically peels an apple, silently recognising that Noriko’s happiness is no longer his to hold onto. Ryū doesn’t need any words to express the sorrow that has overtaken his life. In the final seconds, he bows his head in resignation, and Ozu inserts one last cutaway to waves rolling onto a beach, like a reminder of life’s gentle cycles that carry his characters along. With such thoughtful editing and curated imagery guiding Late Spring’s lyrical rhythms forward, there is both profound joy and sadness to be found in this father-daughter love, dominant for the years one spends in their youth, though never able to carry the longevity of romantic, lifelong partnership.

Ending with the powerful image of Ryū peeling the apple, delivering a poignant silent performance as he is left alone.

Late Spring is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.


Thirst (1949)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 23min

The austere, psychological fantasies that Ingmar Bergman would explore at the height of his filmmaking career were still a long way off for him in 1949, and yet even so, the uneasy flashbacks of Thirst still bring a faintly nightmarish edge to the festered love at its centre. This contempt between married spouses would continue as a source of fascination for him in later projects like Scenes from a Marriage, and although there is nothing here quite on the level of that domestic epic, the vitriol that Rut and Bertil spit at each other is vicious nonetheless. These “prisoners in chains” are bound to each other in sickness and in health, and as they ride a train through a war-ravaged Europe, old heartbreaks rise to the surface, splitting our focus between their parallel traumas and nostalgic affairs.

Given how much of Thirst is spent following these alternating perspectives, it takes a fair bit of time for their context in the present day to emerge, and there is additionally some formal messiness in Bergman’s narrative construction. Specifically within Bertil’s memories, many scenes take place around his widowed mistress, Viola, where he is altogether absent. As a character though, she is a powerful testament to the failing of a patriarchal culture on many levels, from her struggling to stay afloat financially following the death of her husband, to the manipulative abuse of her psychiatrist Dr. Rosengren, thereby creating an opening for former ballerina Valborg to seduce her away from the world of men. Almost like a mirror held up to the opening scene of Bergman’s previous film, this young woman approaches the edge of a pier with the intent to drown herself, but where Port of Call’s Berit was unsuccessful, there is no one around to rescue Viola.

The camera only follows her so far though, eventually resting on the still reflection of a ship in the water, and just as the ripples of her jump gently disturb its image, so too does the impact of her suicide reverberate through Thirst with a haunting melancholy. It does not just occupy the thoughts of Bertil, whose love for her persists, but it also leaves a hopeless void in this allegory of Europe’s lost innocence. Outside the train windows in the present day, crowds of men and women whose lives have been disrupted by war and poverty reach up to the passengers onboard, begging for food scraps. Rut and Bertil may placate their requests, but it isn’t long before they are speeding off on the train again, submerged back in their own drama.

It is frequently in these intimate scenes of claustrophobic interiors where Bergman’s filmmaking flourishes, forcing the camera into delicately framed close-ups of his actors as they pour their frustrations out onto each other and themselves. As Dr Rosengren imposes himself upon Viola, Bergman shoots the profile of her insecure expression with his face behind hers, composing a distinctive shot that he would most famously return to later in Persona. Here though, the camera rotates around their heads in an enchanting swirl, moving into a shot of duelling faces on either side of the frame before letting Viola dominate the image, reflecting the scene’s shift in power dynamics with a single, fluid take. Similarly, the lighting of the train scenes also manifest the deep derision shared between Bertil and Rut, casting shadows and the train’s blinking lights across faces as the foundation of their misery surfaces.

“I hate you so much that I want to live just to make your life miserable. Raoul was brutal. You took away my lust for life.”

There is no downplaying the agony of Rut’s past, which saw her become another man’s mistress and suffer a botched abortion, and yet it is her current husband whose insistent longing for the deceased Viola which torments her the most. Conversely, it is Rut’s own history with her past lover Raoul which plagues Bertil’s mind too, setting up a pair of intangible obstacles that neither can move past. Both are at an impasse, taking snarky jabs at each other by complaining that “There’s too much nudity in this marriage,” but also degrading themselves with harsh, demeaning language.

“Nothing takes root in me. I’m all filth and sludge inside.”

The final, psychological departure from reality that sees Bertil kill his wife with a bottle to the head does not spill over in a moment of anger, but even more chillingly punctuates a cold silence. Once again, close-ups are Bergman’s chosen aesthetic in framing this violent outburst, though in separating them into their own shots there is a disconnection in the action. We see Bertil’s slow turn and sudden attack, and we also see Rut collapse a few seconds later, but the surreal discontinuity in the framing and delay hints at the action taking place purely within a dark, eerie dream state.

With both their previous love lives lying in tatters, further destruction is not the answer for these loveless partners. Perhaps these is a tinge of studio interference in the happy reconciliation that comes about, but if this couple is to represent the disrepair of Europe in the wake of war, then their decision to pursue a more hopeful future together at least expresses an optimism for the continent’s social and economic recovery. For Bergman, it is also slightly closer to the magical realism he would pioneer in future decades, even if it is not fully present yet in his narrative. Still, his dynamic camerawork and framing is enough to visually manifest the wistful temptation to escape into one’s mind from grim realities, especially when that reality is a morose, resentful marriage.

Thirst is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Port of Call (1948)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 40min

By the time Ingmar Bergman came around to directing his fifth feature film in 1948, Italy’s neorealist movement was in full, depressing swing, taking cameras to the streets of cities to capture the real struggles of ordinary people. Much like his previous works, romantic melodrama is the basis of Port of Call’s main storyline, and yet there is also an authentic grit here inspired by the Italians, wrestling with harsher realities of child abuse, abortion, and failed welfare services. In choosing to shoot on authentic docks and harbours, Bergman establishes his setting as a working-class port town, imbuing Berit’s troubles with a more nuanced sorrow connected to her helpless, abject poverty. As she stands on the edge of the water in the opening scene, ships, ropes, and steel beams form a harsh, industrial backdrop to her attempted suicide, offering little salvation in its cold visage besides the one kind sailor who dives in after her.

This first interaction between the two future lovers comes just at the right time for both. Where Berit was ready to give up on life, Gösta has recently returned from a long voyage and decided to settle down on the docks. A second chance encounter in a crowded dance hall pushes them even closer together, though building new relationships is not so easy when old ones continue to be the foundation of lingering trauma.

Flashbacks to those defining points of Berit’s childhood and adolescence are smoothly integrated throughout Port of Call, and are first brought in with a smooth match cut of her face dissolving into her younger self, lying awake in bed as her parents quarrel in the background. To them, she is simply a prop to be pulled back and forth in arguments with no regard for her perspective, and when she becomes a teenager, she is cruelly locked out of her own home for missing curfew. As a result, “I love you” is now an impossible phrase for her to speak, let alone understand.

“I hate those words. Everyone says them without meaning them.”

Bergman’s empathy towards his characters has been evident ever since his debut film, though the creative framing of close-ups which he employs here and would later turn into his visual trademark in the 1950s lands that sensitive compassion with even greater power and grace. Here, he often comes at the faces of his actors from oblique angles, tilting them away from the camera to catch their outline and nestling them against each other in bed, thereby crafting a beautiful intimacy between characters. Conversely, we often find him rupturing that tenderness with a terrible loneliness, using a splendid depth of field to reveal a disconnection amongst the girls in Berit’s reformation school, isolating her even further from an uncaring society.

Even beyond her past, there is a surprising cruelty in Gösta as well, who coldly spurns her upon learning of her previous relationships with other men. Like all of those, this does not seem to be a romance that will last, making the falsely optimistic note it ends feel particularly unearned. It is but an off note in an otherwise accomplished film for Bergman though, who at this point in his career is observing and learning from his fellow contemporary filmmakers. As well as the neorealist influence that sees him bring backgrounds to life with the action of moving cranes, the occasional montage of ships and docks between scenes feels slightly reminiscent of Yasujiro Ozu’s characteristic pillow shots, building a rhythm in transitions that offer a soothing quietude. Sailors and labourers may fill this port with bustling activity, yet the isolation of Bergman’s characters frequently overrides that liveliness, setting in a bleak tone that sees old traumas surface and threaten the chance for new beginnings.

Port of Call is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

A Ship Bound for India (1947)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 38min

Underlying many of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest films is a psychological intrigue seeking to understand his flawed, complex characters, but even in his early melodrama, A Ship Bound for India, his development of a Freudian love triangle carries power in its twisted relationship dynamics. Though the biological matriarch of the Blom family is present in this story, Kapten Blom’s decision to integrate his mistress, Sally, into this clan of sailors immediately sets her up as a surrogate parent of sorts. With her being several decades younger than Blom, the affection is mostly one-sided, and further complications arise when she begins to strike up a romance with his son. Naturally, Johannes’ aroused interest in Sally drives a wedge between him and his father, and while there is no incest to be found here, the love and disdain that he directs towards both parental figures makes for a knotty, Oedipal-adjacent dynamic.

Hanging over this story is an air of fleeting transience, embodied literally by the ships sailing from one dock to the next, and formally weaved into the narrative’s structure as a single, extended flashback, nostalgically yearning for missed connections. Johannes’ incidental run-in with Sally seven years after their brief romance motivates this recollection, and despite the appearance of a random voiceover that we never hear again, the transition is effectively made with melancholy rumination.

It is unclear whether A Ship Bound for India was shot on Bergman’s home island of Fårö like many of his later films, but given the rocky beaches and dreary landscapes on display, it is very much possible. His camerawork is more refined than ever at this point in his career, displaying a depth of field in his blocking that paints out the meaningful character dynamics within its small ensemble, as well as an array of beautiful compositions, such as one particularly striking shot staggering silhouettes of dock workers against a grey sky.

The giant windmill set piece is a significant highlight in this aspect, as Bergman delivers a magnificent establishing shot of the wooden structure rising into an overcast sky and dwarfing the two lovers, before moving into its rough-hewn, timber interior where divisions are visually drawn between them out of log bannisters and sticks. These obstructions are present all through their quarrel, but it is only when they fall into each other’s arms and finally kiss that Bergman unites them in the frame, crafting a delicate, romantic composition.

Realising that Johannes is the only man who loves her without wanting anything in return, Sally all but turns away from Blom, whose hostile behaviour worsens. The ageing sailor feels his youth and vitality seeping away from him, and with the knowledge that his eyesight is going too, he pugnaciously lashes out at those around him. His long-suffering wife can’t wait for the day to come that he is completely blind, believing that maybe then he will settle down a little, but we can see instead the opposite is true. Upon discovering that Sally has left him for Johannes, he impulsively makes an attempt on his own son’s life, cutting off his air supply while he is scuba diving. As his cranking of the pump slows to a halt, Bergman ominously cuts to his shadow, revealing his malicious turn through the darkness he casts on the wharf. Likewise, when the time comes for the police to arrest him, he locks himself in his murky, low-lit bedroom, though this time Bergman hangs on his guilt in a long take, flashing a slow, pulsating light across face.

Johannes may not be directly responsible for his father’s death, but the Oedipal implications are hard to ignore. With his family virtually destroyed by his relationship with Sally, and his work summoning him to India, all they have to hinge their hopes on is the assurance that he will one day return and take her away for good. The pain of the past is still raw, but if there was ever a time to fulfil this promise, it is the present, where fate has drawn them back together on the same docks where they met. The metaphor of ships passing in the night is practically begging to be acknowledged in this tale of romance, trauma, and healing, and under Bergman’s assured direction, it manifests with a light touch of wistful longing.

A Ship Bound for India is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)

Michael Curtiz | 2hr 6min

There is a scene in Yankee Doodle Dandy where, after a lifetime of many accomplishments, famed Broadway composer, lyricist, and performer George M. Cohan is confronted by a posse of teenagers oblivious to his fame. It becomes apparent by this point that Cohan is not a name that has the same cultural cache as his more contemporary predecessors, and in effect it is almost as if the film is recognising the potential cluelessness of its own audience. Michael Curtiz doesn’t quite dispel the notion that Cohan belongs to an older, simpler era of jingoistic patriotism, and yet we still find something undeniably compelling about the showman’s vibrant stage presence and bright, flag-waving theatre tunes. He may not be a household name like he used to be, but his role in pioneering the ‘book musical’ format as an integrated blend of drama and music continues to be felt in contemporary theatre, and in adapting his life story, Curtiz renders the fluidity of his lyrics, melodies, and dances onscreen as a magnificently propulsive biopic.

Given his background of playing loud, bullish gangsters, James Cagney is not the most obvious choice for the role of Cohan, and yet he pulls off something quite unique in translating his strong, physical presence into a performance far more agile and dextrous than we have ever seen from him. It is almost impossible to believe that this short, stocky man can move his feet with such grace, and he especially delights in subverting those expectations even further by using show make-up to convince one adoring fan (and future wife) that he is in his late 60s, before breaking into a tap dance so fast it becomes a blur. Onstage, his body moves as if controlled by a puppeteer, bouncing on his heels and letting his limbs fall around him in effortless coordination, and Curtiz’s camera is in love with every second of it, elegantly tracking him across stages and swooping down from ceilings in majestic crane shots.

A dazzling physical performance from Cagney that couldn’t be further from his gangster roles – his feet are a blur of action and dexterity.
There are sequences that feel as if the camera never stops moving, bridging transitions into scenes and making the theatre purely cinematic. Curtiz may have worked within the studio system, but he still made this a visual trademark of his.

As a result of the collaboration between these two major Hollywood talents, there is a spry nimbleness both in front of and behind the camera, coming together in effervescent displays of patriotism and dazzling beauty. Curtiz’s transition into Cohan’s show-stopping number ‘Yankee Doodle Boy’ is just as energetic as the performer himself, lifting us from the conductor’s sheet music to the chorus onstage, clearing them out of the way to the sound of brilliant fanfare, before finally revealing Cagney standing proudly atop a podium. If it isn’t the camera movements revelling in the commotion of the theatre, then Curtiz is arranging his ensemble in tight formations and setting us back in wide shots to admire the military march of ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’, or the unified raising of arms up to the Lincoln Memorial in ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’.

Rigorous blocking of large ensembles in the theatre, making for bold displays of mise-en-scène.

Curtiz’s deep focus lens assists his direction a great deal in capturing the full scope of his stage ensembles, but it is used to even greater effect offstage where we get to understand Cohan’s place as the dedicated son of a travelling, vaudeville family. As he grows successful, there is clearly an unspoken imbalance between his rising star and their financial struggles, so that even when he generously gives them ownership of all the theatres and properties he owns, Curtiz still isolates him in the foreground against the staggered staging of his family in the background. It is a moment of joy, and yet the camera fully registers Cagney’s wistful expression. Later upon the passing of Cohan’s father, Curtiz’s blocking fragments them entirely, recognising this tragedy as the end of a chapter in both his career and personal life.

Deep focus camerawork a year after Citizen Kane, crafting delicate character dynamics.

For the most part though, there is little time in Yankee Doodle Dandy for misfortunes and setbacks. The odd artistic compromise or failed play mounts to little when all is said and done, as Curtiz instead builds Cohan’s successes to glorious cinematic heights, driving his story forward with energetic montages of falling curtains and cross-country tours. Even more astounding than his editing though is one particularly inventive sequence that navigates an entire city of Art Deco miniatures and billboards shining Cohan’s name up in lights, flying Curtiz’s camera through urban cityscapes for close to 2 minutes without a single cut.

A creative use of miniatures to build an entire city of flashing billboards, which Curtiz flies his camera through for almost two minutes at the height of Cohan’s success.

For such a culturally ubiquitous and pioneering figure though, there is something quietly subversive about his quaint, old-fashioned patriotism, bolstering his popularity in the aftermath of World War I by calling back to a more innocent era in the United States’ history.

“Manhattan went wild with post-war hysteria, but I spiked my shows with pre-war stuff… the sentiment and humour an older America had aged in the wood.”

In his music too, this love of the old days is almost always right there in its melodies and lyrics, referencing traditional American songs such as that which is right there in the title of the film. Ray Heindorf and Heinz Roemheld do a magnificent job of working Cohan’s tunes into their score as well, letting the original pieces breathe when it is their time to take the spotlight, and elsewhere keeping them in mind as instrumental arrangements. To Cohan, these may just be expressions of great national pride, but to virtually everyone else, they become a pure embodiment of the American spirit, moving beyond the theatre and taking on a new life in grand parades and celebrations. This culminates in the magnificent finale of ‘Over There’ sung by a chorus of soldiers marching through the streets of Washington D.C., but it is more broadly embedded in the very framing device of Cohan’s meeting with the President too, leading into the flashbacks of his life story.

It makes a lot of sense why a film like this struck a chord in 1942, when America was right in the middle of a world war and morale was at a low. A reminder of the nation’s prosperous past was needed to imagine a hopeful future, and there are few cinematic characters so emblematic of that as Cagney’s representation of Cohan, who in his final minutes of screen time casts a shadow across the Oval Office and then, in an inspired bit of improvisation, joyfully tap dances down a White House staircase. Yankee Doodle Dandy’s politics are unsophisticated, but its nostalgic sentiment is strong, beating back whatever accusations of outdated mawkishness might be thrown its way with Cagney’s dynamic energy and Curtiz’s dextrous displays of creative ingenuity.

An inspired improvisation from Cagney as he tap dances down the stairs in the White House.

Yankee Doodle Dandy is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

It Rains On Our Love (1946)

Ingmar Bergman | 1hr 35min

Ingmar Bergman screenplays are rarely so blunt as they were during his first few years of filmmaking where character dynamics tilted towards melodrama, and yet his second feature, It Always Rains on Our Love, wraps up its candid message of acceptance in a surprisingly sweet, magical realist fable. Perhaps if it came out even a year later, one might have even been tempted to draw a direct line of influence from It’s a Wonderful Life, so it is somewhat of a coincidence that these two films were both released in 1946 given the formal similarities. Never mind the brief sojourn into a Christmastime setting, or even the guardian angel narrator watching over his troubled protagonists. Just as George Bailey is met with misfortune and failure at every turn leading up to his epiphany, so too does it seem as if the entire world is united in its torment of young couple David and Maggi, keeping them from starting new lives together away from the trauma of their past.

Quite curiously, the only person willing to come to their defence is an elderly man neither know on any personal level, and yet who somehow knows them intimately. In the opening minutes, he stands among a group of street pedestrians huddled beneath umbrellas, and as they escape from the rain onto a bus, he remains standing alone on the sidewalk. His address to the camera arrives as more than just a knowing wink, as he explicitly foreshadows his own place in the story, offers commentary on its sequence of events, and even refers to Maggi as his “leading character.” Later when David hits rock bottom in a bar, the mystery man makes contact with him for the first time to offer words of wisdom, though he makes an even greater impact in the final act when, seemingly out of nowhere, he takes on the mantle of the couple’s defence attorney.

Our narrator’s appearances through the film are sparse though, as Bergman is sure not to rely on him too much through David and Maggi’s navigation of a complicated, judgemental world. The train station where they quite literally run into each other marks a crossroad in both their lives, with both searching for fresh starts. Where David is reintegrating into society after spending time in prison, Maggi has recently fallen pregnant, and neither have any family to fall back on. They are far from perfect people, especially given David’s initial reaction to learning about Maggi’s baby, and yet quarrels are always followed by real remorse and reconciliation between the two.

The true villain in this piece can’t be nailed down to any single character, but it is rather the mounting difficulties of living in a prejudiced society which congeal into a single menace. While they dream of a quiet, stable life, they find neighbours accusing them of theft, welfare services threatening to separate them, and bureaucratic officials evicting them from their own home. The stillbirth of Maggi’s baby adds yet a greater pain to their misery, denying them even a target to aim their anger at. Some odd comedic interludes revolving around their neighbours don’t quite cohere with everything else going on, but Bergman is otherwise confident in his storytelling, building towards a court case that condenses every nasty jab we have witnessed into a barrage of cruel attacks.

It Always Rains on Our Love contains a good deal of handsome photography, especially in its wide range of elegantly composed establishing shots, though it isn’t until we enter the courtroom that its visual style manifests more fully. Minor antagonists from throughout the film step up to the witness stand and deliver their testimony in close-ups to the camera, and Bergman moves through them rapidly in a montage set against the flipping pages of a law book, cornering his protagonists into an inescapable dead end. As such, the return of the guardian angel is timely, making for a nice formal comparison against virtually every other character. He is virtuous and kind, but not without a sense of humour, demonstrating an intangible goodness in the universe existing beyond humanity’s trivial prejudices. The perspective he offers is straightforward but sincere, simply asking the world’s imperfect youths are afforded a little more grace.

“That’s what this whole business is all about. It’s about two people who would say ‘Nothing concerns us’ because they’ve been told ‘You’re no concern of ours.’ On the other hand, we have their love for each other. Their efforts, albeit awkward, to fit into society. We should look upon that with favour.”

The elderly man’s final, parting gift to them marks the film with particularly poetic bookends, as Bergman ties back in the motif of rain from the opening scene, pouring a dour gloom on top of our characters. This time though, they possess their guardian angel’s umbrella. They may never see him again, but he has passed on the wisdom they need to carve out their own place in a bleak world, and weather whatever it casts down on them. Bergman would go on to write and direct more complex dramas than It Always Rains on Our Love, and yet the touch of fantasy he injects into this fable of abject misery is charming nonetheless, formally rounding out a heartfelt call for compassion towards society’s outcasts.

It Rains On Our Love is not currently available to stream in Australia.

The Big Sleep (1946)

Howard Hawks | 1hr 54min

Too often when a story is accused of convolution, the core issue usually comes back to some mix of overloaded exposition, useless subplots, or a downright messy structure that quickly gets out of control. To wield convolution as a purposeful device that escapes each of these criticisms proves to be a truly impressive feat though in The Big Sleep, where twists and turns are dedicated to the overwhelming, fatalistic forces seeking to overcome Humphrey Bogart’s private detective, Phillip Marlowe. Credit must of course be given to screenwriters William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett, and Jules Furthman, as well as the author of the source material, Raymond Chandler himself, but it is ultimately Howard Hawks who takes artistic ownership of this densely plotted conspiracy, navigating blackmail and murder with gloriously pulpy intrigue.

For those looking to pick apart this opaque plot with charts and diagrams, it is not an impossible task. The Big Sleep’s tightly-wound storytelling leaves very little unresolved by the end, though to focus too much on the winding path of each thread may prove to be unfulfilling. As Roger Ebert puts so succinctly, “the movie is about the process of the criminal investigation, not its results.” In other words, this is meant to be chewed on, but never really swallowed, as it is only while we are savouring the bewildering turmoil of each individual moment that we can appreciate Hawks’ construction of an alluring but perilous world far beyond our comprehension.

Chiaroscuro lighting typical of classic film noir, outlining the silhouettes of Bogart and Bacall.

It all starts when Marlowe is hired by General Sternwood to settle the gambling debts of his flirtatious daughter, Carmen, though enigmatic layers begin to emerge almost immediately when his other daughter, Vivian, pulls him aside, suspecting that this has to do with her father’s disappeared protégé, Sean Regan. From this point on, these affairs become the main through lines of Marlowe’s inquiries, the first of which is tied up by the film’s midpoint, subsequently leaving the second to take over as the primary source of intrigue. That two key players in this mystery are killed before we even get a chance to attach faces to their names only serves to disorientate us further, but such is the nature of the perspective Hawks forces us to adopt. Marlowe is our avatar in this story, meaning that everything is filtered through his eyes, leaving us just as baffled as him each time his discoveries spawn a dozen more questions.

Deep focus photography well-suited to Hawks’ sprawling ensemble, brilliant staging, and convoluted plotting.

This isn’t to suggest that he is anything less than competent though, nor that he ever lets that weakness show. Marlowe is beaten, tied up, and threatened on multiple occasions, and yet the confidence that Bogart carries throughout would convince even his worst enemies that he’s the one in control. All through The Big Sleep, he meets sudden surprises with cool nonchalance, keeping a stoic expression as he playfully delivers dry one-liners to men pointing revolvers at him.

“Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains. You know, you’re the second guy I’ve met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail.”

Darkness eating away at faces and locations like a pervasive corruption.
Hawks is not always a master of mise-en-scène, but he is showing off some impressive noir visuals here with his rain, lighting, and layering of his shots.

That streak of hardened cynicism doesn’t quite disappear when women are around, but it is somewhat comical how often this treacherous world confronts him with unexpected romantic encounters, as if trying to entice and ensnare him in a trap. The primary love interest here is Vivian, Lauren Bacall’s husky-voiced femme fatale, whose entanglement in her sister’s affairs remains curiously vague up until the final minutes. In the meantime, the steamy banter between her and Marlowe is more than enough to keep us hanging onto their coy provocations, ranging from lively jabs to full-blown sexual innuendos.

“Well, speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they’re front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole-card is. What makes them run.”

“Find out mine?”

One of the great real-life and onscreen romances of Golden Age Hollywood – Bogart and Bacall’s chemistry with their playful innuendos and jabs is magnetic.

This may be a gritty film noir, but Hawks is not directing his actors as a private detective and femme fatale like we see in Double Indemnity. Instead, Bogart and Bacall become a screwball couple engaging in a beguiling battle of wits, sparring like old married spouses trying to get one up over the other, while simultaneously drawing on their real-life passion as lovers. Even outside their interactions though, it seems that instant, sizzling chemistry isn’t uncommon in this world. Carmen’s overt advances towards Marlowe are constant and relentless, while elsewhere a bookseller and taxi driver each express their interest through off-handed quips.

“If you can use me again sometime, call this number.”

“Day or night?”

“Night’s better. I work during the day.”

Romance always seems to be just around the corner for Marlowe, falling into his arms even when uninvited.

In a labyrinthine narrative that just keeps throwing us off its scent, these succulent character dynamics often feel as if they are all we have to orientate ourselves, and fully realising what he’s got in these charming performances, Hawks relishes every second of them. When Marlowe comes across Vivian singing a sultry rendition of ‘And Her Tears Flowed Like Wine’ at a party, she is blocked in the centre of the band accompanying her, dressed in a luminous white gown that seems to shine brighter than anything else in the room. Given how visually dark his world is, it’s no wonder he is so drawn to her, as Hawks often sets her up in stark opposition to his dingy, low-key lighting that almost emanates from his shady characters.

Bacall is luminous in this scene, taking centre-frame in her white dress as Bogart lingers in the background.

It is especially as The Big Sleep hurtles towards its conclusion that Hawks’ mise-en-scène grows progressively dimmer, creeping up to the edges of Marlowe’s face as he hides in gloomy corners and casting shadows of his suspects up on walls as they make quick getaways. In one scene that sees him tail a thug planning to rob Vivian, the camera thrillingly engages in the silent pursuit with tracking shots gliding past cars, and as we cut back to him crouching in the darkness, it is evident that this is where he is most comfortable. Conversely, the presence of light also indicates a clear path forward for him in his investigations, as Hawks cleverly coordinates one shot in a diner that sees the lamp hanging above his head turn on the moment an idea strikes.

Hawks demonstrating his penchant for gripping visual storytelling in his editing, bouncing between Vivian, her stalker, and her stalker’s stalker.
A creatively oppressive frame, obstructing Bogart’s face with the steering wheel.
Shadows of suspects thrown up on windows and walls, keeping us from seeing the whole truth.

By and large though, Hawks is much more a pragmatic filmmaker than he is a stylist, using his expressionistic visuals and suspenseful editing to serve The Big Sleep’s remarkable jigsaw of a narrative. Even as the pieces settle in place, the dizzying spell he has cast over us never quite fades, and it continues to wear away at our desire for rationality right up until the last scene. With Vivian’s motives finally being cleared of suspicion, there is at least some solace to be found in the couple’s final embrace, as it is only when the passionate temptations and perilous exploits of Marlowe’s precarious world are properly untangled that trust between lovers can begin to grow strong, firm roots.

The moment an idea strikes, a light turns on above Bogart’s head. Hawks’ mise-en-scène is playfully interactive with his characters.

The Big Sleep is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

Gentleman Jim (1942)

Raoul Walsh | 1hr 44min

Raoul Walsh takes a loose approach to historical accuracy in taking on the story of boxing legend James J. Corbett, often opting for comedy where other directors might have preferred serious drama, but Gentleman Jim simply does not possess the self-seriousness that more modern biopics have developed a reputation for. This is the man who turned the sport from illegal street brawling into serious competition by way of sophisticated fighting techniques that overcame the brute force of more traditional boxers, and Errol Flynn’s dashing screen persona makes for a wonderfully unconventional fit. The physical disparity is notable as he sizes up against larger, more muscular men, especially when Ward Bond’s towering world champion, John L. Sullivan, is set as the final boss in Corbett’s rise to the top. “I can lick any man in the world,” Sullivan loudly boasts in noisy bars, and though he is not quite a villain, Gentleman Jim is clearly on the side of the underdog here.

In place of heavy themes and personal character struggles, Walsh imbues this biopic with a whimsical lightness, entering the world of 19th century San Francisco through a photo album that turns a still frame into a busy cobbled street of storefronts, police officers, and horse-drawn carriages. The splendid deep focus photography he uses to shoot his splendid period décor even more importantly extends to his giant boxing set pieces, using the ropes of the rings to frame the adversaries inside, and even foregrounding the audience themselves in wider shots to crowd the scenery.

A strong opening shot, opening up a photo album and then bringing it life as we are transported into 19th century San Francisco.

Whether he is lining hundreds of extras along the docks and masts of shipyards to view illegal matches or tightly packing them into closed-off arenas, Walsh’s sweeping establishing shots fill every square inch of space with bodies, bringing tremendous spectacle to competitions that seemingly have the whole world watching. He takes even greater pleasure too in seeing these extras scatter when the police arrive, setting the camera far back to capture the playful chaos unfold as they escape into the ocean.

Raoul Walsh is a crafter of incredible set pieces, making Gentleman Jim the perfect fit for him in gathering these hundreds of extras around boxing rings.

Perhaps the most innovative piece of Walsh’s style here is the fast-paced editing he uses inside the ring, clearly bearing an influence on Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull some forty years later. Where Jake LaMotta fights like a bull though, Jim is light on his feet, and the constant cutting to his agile footwork serves to underscore his ground-breaking fighting technique. Walsh navigates these scenes with equal nimbleness, punctuating hits with cutaways to the audience’s reactions and weaving in splendid long shots as breathers between each round.

What could have been conventional montages become displays of inspired editing. Especially impressive is the shot which starts on the two men, tracks forward on the still photo behind them, unfreezes it to move Jim into the shot, and then tracks back out to the two men – editing with the illusion of one long take.

Even when he uses montage editing for the more conventional purpose of bridging gaps in time, Jim’s rise to success is rendered in long dissolves, freeze frames, and point-of-view shots that see him knock us right out, pushing the formal boundaries of a relatively simple device. Though Gentleman Jim lacks the layered storytelling that might have made these characters more compelling than they are, Walsh’s exploration of boxing’s evolution still tells us something about the raw, primal nature of our sporting passions, and the concerted effort to reconcile those with our refined humanity.

Walsh vigorously editing these boxing scenes 40 years before Raging Bull – obviously not quite up to the same remarkable standard, but the achievement is still there.

Gentleman Jim is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

The Philadelphia Story (1940)

George Cukor | 1hr 52min

It is nothing short of remarkable that George Cukor managed to unite Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart in one film and capture such fine performances from each, though the brilliant comedy of The Philadelphia Story goes beyond its raw star power. Donald Ogden Stewart’s screenplay is marvellously constructed in its romantic entanglements and sophisticated wit, as over the course of 24 hours preceding the wedding of one wealthy socialite, Tracy Lord, he entwines and then unravels a knotted web of fiancés, divorcees, crushes, and affairs. The end of her previous marriage to magazine reporter C.K. Dexter Haven is captured in a brief, wordless prologue, with each step, push, and snap of a golf club playfully punctuated by Franz Waxman’s jaunty score. The terms they depart on are far from amiable, and it isn’t until thirty minutes later that we see them reunited once more with Grant’s delightfully dry greeting.

“Hello friends and enemies.”

Dexter’s intentions seem shady at first, as he is bringing his colleagues Mike and Liz undercover for a report on Tracy’s wedding to posh aristocrat George Kittredge, though soon enough he reveals his true motive of distracting his boss from the bigger story regarding her philandering father. Meanwhile, Mike’s opinion of her as a “rich, rapacious American female” softens upon their meeting, and soon another romance begins to blossom between the two as he begins to see her instead as a “radiant, glorious queen,” obliviously disregarding Liz’s own feelings for him.

Delicate beauty in this romance between Tracy and Mike, eventually turning into a hilarious drunken fling.

All across the male ensemble, Tracy comes across similarly narrow views that reject her humanity in favour of simplified stereotypes which, however loathsome or adoring, do bear at least some semblance of truth. To her father, she lacks an “understanding heart” and behaves like a spoilt goddess, casting judgement upon those she deems beneath her. To George, the “beautiful purity” of her demeanour is exactly what attracts him, worshipping her like a statue to be placed on a pedestal. As for Dexter, it is that perfectionistic intolerance which drove him to drink during their marriage, resulting in their divorce.

“You’ll never be a first-class human being or a first-class woman, until you’ve learned to have some regard for human frailty. It’s a pity your own foot can’t slip a little sometime – but your sense of inner divinity wouldn’t allow that. This goddess must and shall remain intact.”

Of course though, she isn’t a goddess, and after a series of upsetting conversations revealing the way these men view her, she downs three cocktails, setting in motion a drunken night that pulls back the curtain on her imperfections and insecurities. Still, this doesn’t stop an equally inebriated Mike from falling even deeper into his infatuation, and Cukor relishes every comedic beat from Stewart as he slurs and hiccups his way through a confession of love for Tracy to a weary Grant. Cukor’s elegant camerawork serves the humour here well as it navigates interactions between characters with a nimble lightness, often moving away from those dominating our attention to amusingly reveal others eavesdropping from just outside the frame.

A meeting of two great actors, Cary Grant and James Stewart, both at the top of their comedic game.
Wonderful camera movements shifting our focus to eavesdroppers, emphasising the web of fantastic characters and their dynamics.

Visually though, Cukor is clearly much better suited to large-scale musicals with bold production designs like A Star is Born, and while we can see traces of that style seep through the handsome décor of the wedding reception’s white tablecloths and candles towards the end, The Philadelphia Story rests its creative strengths on its sharply pointed screenplay. Given his profession as a writer, it isn’t surprising that Dexter seemingly has no limit to the number of barbs he throws Tracy’s way, and Grant’s deliveries never fail to land with pure, cutting ferocity.

“I thought all writers used to drink and beat their wives. You know, I always used to think I wanted to be a writer.”

Handsomely mounted production design in these last few scenes as the dynamic between Dexter and Tracy softens into a sweet romance.

Then there is the passing of specific phrases between characters, each one serving to strengthen their bonds and development. When Tracy chides Mike at one point for his apparent prejudice, she finds herself using the same words that Dexter used against her earlier, and stops herself mid-sentence in recognition of their shared perspective. Most notably of all though, the two ex-lovers frequently recall the nautical term “yar” from their past sailing on boats, defining it as “Easy to handle, quick to the helm, fast, right. Everything a boat should be, until she develops dry rot.” In effect, it embodies the flexibility, kindness, and patience one shows towards their partner in a relationship, and the metaphor grows even more apparent each time it arises, leading to the final declaration of love between the two divorcees-turned-fiancés.

“Oh, Dexter, I’ll be yar now. I’ll promise to be yar now.”

“Be whatever you like. You’re my redhead.”

Of the three potential lovers Tracy has been caught between over the previous night, it is clear she has made the right choice. Where someone like George cannot stand to see her fall from the pedestal he has placed her on, and Mike remains obstinately blind to her flaws, Dexter is the only man who fully understands and accepts her as she is, yar or no yar.

A wedding with no groom saved in the last minute by the ex-husband, tying up loose ends with a sweeping romantic gesture.

With a wedding ready to go and the groom no longer around, the setting is perfect for Dexter to step into his shoes, inviting the impromptu bridal party of Mike and Liz to escort them down the aisle. And of course, the tabloid photographer is right there waiting for them at the altar, giving Cukor his perfect ending with a freeze frame of their shocked faces looking straight at the camera. With such insurmountable charm and refined form as this, Cukor’s relative lack of visual style is easy enough to forgive, as The Philadelphia Story’s lightly pointed comedy cleverly picks apart the complex dynamics of troubled romances and the humility that can turn them into flourishing relationships.

A perfect, charming union of each main star in the final wedding scene.

The Philadelphia Story is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

White Heat (1949)

Raoul Walsh | 1hr 54min

Before there was Norman Bates and his psychotic mother, there was Cody and Ma Jarrett – two halves of one criminal mind, operating illegal schemes from within their small mob and sharing a co-dependent love which stretches our belief in its platonic foundations. Though Cody is married to the wily, blonde Verna and places full trust in his right-hand man, Big Ed, both associates recognise that their respective relationships with him will never approach the same depths as this mother-son bond, which holds sway over virtually every aspect of his life. Perhaps more than anything else, it is this stunted maturity which erodes their faith in him, pushing them to eliminate Ma when her back is turned and thereby robbing him of his greatest source of comfort. The law’s concerted efforts to track him down may be directly responsible for Cody’s eventual downfall, but it is only when Ma is finally out of the picture that he finds himself truly defeated.

Not that Cody would ever admit that. He’s on his way to the “Top of the world,” according to his Ma, and her early death only sees him cling closer to that idea than ever. White Heat might almost be a tragedy if its central character was not such a despicable human being, though with an actor like James Cagney in this role commanding a heavy, magnetic screen presence, Cody begs for at least some of the audience’s pity. With a jaw that juts out from a scowling face and the physique of a stocky brawler, Cagney’s gangster looks like a tougher, more violent take on the classic Wellesian antihero, not unlike Charles Foster Kane in his great ambition, or George Amberson Minafer in his Freudian inclinations. For Cody, it is not one fatal flaw earning his place among the greatest cinematic characters of the 1940s, but a whole multitude of them, each one tied back to that insecure, volatile ego which places his mother on a pedestal and punishes anyone who even hints at threatening their unhinged relationship.

Great staging of bodies and faces, placing Cody and Ma in their own shared world.
A well-placed long dissolve over Cody and Ma’s faces, visually and psychologically binding the two together.

Raoul Walsh’s slick direction is well-suited to the abundant subtext of this twisted dynamic, blocking his actors in compositions that insulate Cody and Ma in their own lonely world, and later blending close-ups of both their faces in a well-timed long dissolve. This childlike bond brings a surprising layer of vulnerability to an otherwise harsh character, especially when Cody finds himself dolefully separated from his Ma in prison. The scene in which he learns of her death from his fellow inmates was originally going to take place in a small chapel due to the cheaper setup, but Walsh’s push for the mess hall set filled with hundreds of extras brilliantly pays off as the humiliating location for his hysterical breakdown. As the camera follows the whispers along a table in one long parallel tracking shot, we anxiously anticipate the reaction that awaits it at the other end, where Cody’s agonising screams and sobs finally destroy the hardened image he had cultivated over the years.

Cody’s breakdown upon learning of Ma’s death is set against this backdrop of hundreds of extras, blowing his emotions up to a magnificent scale.

As a crafter of truly spectacular set pieces such as these, Walsh expertly matches the huge emotions of his characters with kinetic pacing and an impressive coordination of action, bookending White Heat with a pair of robberies that, on some level, both send Cody soaring to the “top of the world”. The first is a resounding success for his gang, offering this mobster film a hint of the western genre as they hold up a train, kill its crew, and leave with their earnings, setting an extraordinary level of ruthlessness in its characterisations and tightness in its editing. The final set piece closing out White Heat is even more explosive, as Cody sets out to infiltrate a chemical plant with a tanker full of his men to steal its payroll, while unwittingly collaborating with an undercover police officer, Hank, whose plans steadily derail his own.

A superb depth of field in Walsh’s blocking, building excellent character dynamics via the levels in his frame.

Some brisk intercutting and a swift barrage of long dissolves efficiently narrow the police in on Cody’s “Trojan tanker” while this narrative drives towards its climax, and when the two sides of the law finally converge at the plant, Walsh makes remarkable use of its labyrinthine layout and industrial architecture to stage the thrilling final showdown. From high and low angles alike, frames are crowded by winding, metal pipes, and Walsh exhilaratingly sends Cody hurtling through offices and corridors, until he reaches a field of gas storage tanks.

A barrage of long dissolves in a montage driving towards the climactic conclusion.
An excellent use of industrial architecture in the final pursuit between cops and gangsters, combining thrillingly staged action with shadows and sharp editing.

Though he is the last man standing and finds himself surrounded by police, Cody is still dementedly giggling as he climbs one of the globe-shaped structures, elevating himself above everyone else. “Made it Ma! Top of the world!” he madly shouts as he shoots at the tank beneath his feet, going out in a literal blaze of glory. The following line which virtually explains the metaphor to those who missed it is an unfortunate misstep, though it only barely dulls the impact of this dazzling finale. In Walsh’s tight construction of this marvellously compelling character study, White Heat recognises that such ambitious, extravagant grandeur will only ever be fleeting for men as vile and deeply troubled as Cody Jarrett.

One of the great endings of the 1940s – violently and explosively poetic.

White Heat is currently available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.