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.

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.

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.