Pinocchio (1940)

Ben Sharpsteen, Hamilton Luske | 1hr 28min

It shouldn’t be surprising that the artistic peak of Walt Disney animations can be narrowed down to the period that the entrepreneur himself was alive, overseeing the production of each feature film from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs up until The Jungle Book. It is there that the studio flourished with artistic ambition, driven by the vision of Disney himself who, quite unusually, exerted his influence as auteur from the position of producer rather than director. So caught up in the nostalgia of childhood, every single one of these beloved films have at some point been claimed as the definitive best for some sentimental reason, though none quite reach the magnificent stylistic and narrative heights of Pinocchio – just the second feature film to come from Disney, marking the pinnacle of his cinematic innovation.

To praise the landmark in animating mechanical motions and weather effects that Pinocchio exhibits is not to simply boil its triumph down to its technical advancements, though Walt Disney certainly belongs in the same conversation as James Cameron and Steven Spielberg, all being filmmakers who push boundaries in the realms of both technology and art. Where Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs possesses a more primitive, picturesque splendour though, Pinocchio feels tangibly alive in its movements, orchestrating an entire symphony of cuckoo clocks that chime, click, and dance in polyrhythmic, mechanical beats. A mother spanks her child, a hunter shoots a bird, a bee flies off a flower, and a love of whimsical contraptions bursts forth from Geppetto’s beautifully anarchic workshop, where the old woodcarver plays with his creations. All around this space, Disney layers and obstructs his compositions with those random assorted pieces, detailing some of the finest hand-drawn illustrations captured on film, and specifically evoking the expressive, cluttered mise-en-scène that Josef von Sternberg pioneered a mere decade earlier.

So many compositions like these in Geppetto’s workshop, obstructing frames with toys, clocks, and shelves, evocatively layering his mise-en-scène with a delicate visual touch.

From the tiny perspective of Jiminy Cricket, this crowded Italian cottage might as well be a playground blown up to a magnificent scale, turning countertops into cliffs and bookshelves into caves. Toy Story would take some inspiration from this 55 years later by expanding a simple kid’s bedroom into an entire landscape of possibilities, and there is even the common thematic thread between the two of toys wishing to be real, though Pinocchio is especially active in using its camerawork to stretch the eccentric wonder of its world. As Jiminy Cricket heads towards the workshop to seek refuge for the night, Disney adopts his point-of-view, energetically hopping up and down with him, and later we watch Geppetto dance with his newest marionette from inside the bowl of his goldfish, Cleo. There, the curved glass playfully distorts Pinocchio’s movements, comically stretching his face to fanciful effect.

You don’t find this sort of experimentation in other Disney films – playfully refracting the image of a dancing Pinocchio through Cleo’s goldfish bowl.
Like Toy Story 55 years later, a single room becomes an entire world for its minuscule inhabitants, blowing up its tiny pieces of decor to magnificent proportions.

It isn’t until after Geppetto’s wish is granted by the Blue Fairy and finds that Pinocchio has sprung to life that we depart his workshop for the wider world, and the film steps up its rich stylistic immersion once again with a shot that might just be Disney’s finest moment. The multiplane camera his studio developed years earlier allows a robust depth of field comparable to live-action film, but it is put to especially excellent use here in the sheer coordination of its multiple moveable layers, together simulating one long take gliding across rooftops and under bridges of this humble Italian village. As we descend from the bell tower, watching doors fly open and children running through the streets, it is evident that Disney is specifically using this shot to mark an exciting new chapter in his narrative, introducing Pinocchio to an entire world of possibilities.

An unusually long take for animation lasting almost a minute, descending from the bell tower and flying through the town. Technically accomplished animation from Disney, making excellent use of his multi-plane camera, but also so artistically potent, making a new chapter in the narrative.
Townscapes like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), with expressionistic warped roofs and mountains.

Scattered through the film are similarly dynamic camera movements making the most of the gorgeous townscape, notable among them being the inspired overhead tracking shot that passes buildings and trees through the foreground as Pinocchio skips off with his shady new friends, Honest John and Giddy. Even when Disney isn’t dollying in on the two sleazy foxes over the stairs of a greasy bar or pouring down needles of rain upon Geppetto searching for his lost boy, we are often left to sit in glorious, still images that seem carved from wood with their tactile, grainy textures.

Another skilfully executed long take, this time watching Pinocchio through the streets with the foxes in ‘Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee’ from a high angle, passing buildings and trees through the foreground.
Disney’s using of ornate mise-en-scène to frame his characters all through Pinocchio is a huge visual success of the film, especially as the camera dollies in and out of scenes.

By the time the boy puppet arrives at Stromboli’s travelling show as his newest act to sing the musical number ‘I Got No Strings’, the central allegory driving Pinocchio’s narrative has properly settled in, using these “strings” to represent the parental restrictions that slowly ease up as a child grows older. Becoming human, or to become “real” as the film posits, is not just a matter of claiming one’s independence. To be human is to be guided by one’s moral conscience, embodied here by our narrator, Jiminy Cricket, whose asides to the camera turn him into a one-man Greek Chorus. His attempt at explaining the complex concept of morality in simple terms to Pinocchio leaves him a little lost for words, and so it is only when each test of integrity comes around that he can offer advice for the puppet to either accept or ignore.

It follows then that if a child can become “real” by proving they can be trusted with responsibility, then the opposite will see a transformation of a different kind. As Pinocchio tries to fib his way out of accountability, his nose grows and grows, eventually springing a nest with eggs and birds on the end of it. It is a humiliating physical transformation that distances him even further from his dream of being human, though compared to what awaits him at Pleasure Island, it is a relatively tame punishment.

Pleasure Island – treacherous in what it represents, and terrifying in its crowded, Art Deco visage, heavily inspired by F.W. Murnau’s carnival from Sunrise (1927) or perhaps even The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).

It is upon this strange isle that Disney essentially creates a mini-horror film for children, sending a boatload of boys to a carnival where they can indulge all their wildest impulses. Once again, cluttered mise-en-scène dominates the scenery, and its visual transformation from bright, Art Deco-inspired amusement park to dystopian ruin over the course of one night also signals the degradation of these boys’ souls. If one submits to their most base animal instincts, Disney reasons, then their outside might as well match what’s inside, and as such the children on this island are transformed into donkeys and shipped off to work in mines and circuses. It is a horrific thing to watch, so much so that even the camera looks away at the final stage of Lampwick’s bone-creaking metamorphosis, rendered through haunting shadows cast against a wall. For all the magic and whimsy present in Pinocchio, it is strikingly grounded for a Disney film, giving real weight to the choices its young protagonist makes.

More silent expressionism here, this time Nosferatu (1922) with the shadows depicting a horrific, bestial transformation.

There is some unfortunate narrative hand-waving leading into the film’s final act, which while being a resplendent sequence in itself, is not terribly well set-up, as the Blue Fairy intervenes for the third time to let Pinocchio finally prove his worth. Geppetto’s search for his lost boy has led him into the mouth of the fearsome whale, Monstro, and in the underwater battle with the beast, Disney concludes his magnificent experiment in animating truly invigorating action. Geppetto’s dying lamplights bounce off the surface of the water inside Monstro’s cavernous belly, and as he and Pinocchio make their decisive escape, Disney creates powerful visual movements in his waves, currents, bubbles, and splashes, each one intricately sculpted through the precise arrangement of visible droplets and streams of white foam.

Framing Geppetto’s boat using the whale’s innards – there’s certainly no criticising his visual creativity.
A landmark in water animation, with each drop, stream, ripple, wave, and current intricately hand-drawn and moving with such visceral realism.

With this dazzling whirlwind of a set piece closing out the film, Pinocchio’s astonishing scope and scale effectively exceeds virtually every other Disney animation that came before and after, building a world that seems to never stop shifting around its characters. Purely within context of their emotional arcs though, the pay-off carries a sweet tenderness to it. The lesson that Pinocchio learnt much earlier in the film after obliviously playing with fire returns here in his rescue of Geppetto, using his new knowledge to rile up Monstro and make a quick escape. Even more rewarding than that though is how this deed demonstrates his innate selflessness, finally validating him as a ”real” boy with a conscience.

For Geppetto, the anxieties of parenting prove to be worth it, as he finally gains a son no longer under his control, and yet who is fully active in loving and protecting him. To be “brave, truthful, and unselfish” – that is what it means to be human, Disney suggests, and the dynamic visual expression of this moral fable in all its dark, whimsical temptations backs it up as a staggering accomplishment of both meticulous hand-drawn animation and rich, allegorical storytelling.

Josef von Sternberg in the cluttered mise-en-scène, out of focus but still leaving a tangible imprint on these detailed shots.
The animation of rain bringing such tactility to these scenes. It is hard to believe the leap Disney took from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs just three years earlier to this.

Disney Plus is currently streaming on Disney Plus, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes and YouTube.

The Lost Weekend (1945)

Billy Wilder | 1hr 41min

Don Birnam would like to believe that within his body, there resides two versions of him: Don the Writer and Don the Drunk. Never mind that his sober self collects and stashes bottles of liquor in nooks around his flat, actively enabling his own addiction. With this fancy literary conceit of dual personalities, it is easy enough for him to blame it on his fear of creative failure, and escape culpability for whatever he gets up to while under the influence. There is no doubt he is an intelligent man capable of far greater things than what he is currently achieving in life, especially since Billy Wilder relishes writing his dialogue with loquacious, dramatic zeal, letting him romantically soliloquise the sublime effect alcohol takes on his consciousness.

“It shrinks my liver, doesn’t it, Nat? It pickles my kidneys, yes. But what does it do to my mind? It tosses the sandbags overboard so the balloon can soar. Suddenly, I’m above the ordinary, I’m competent, supremely competent. I’m walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls. I’m one of the great ones. I’m Michelangelo moulding the beard of Moses. I’m Van Gogh painting pure sunlight. I’m Horowitz playing the ‘Emperor Concerto’.”

A fine performance from Ray Milland, hitting the highs and lows of this charismatic alcoholic as he struggles with addiction.
Some excellent mise-en-scène work from Wilder as well, making use of foregrounds and backgrounds in these shots that tell entire stories.

Ray Milland’s delivery of such poetic lines goes beyond mere affection. Don is absolutely infatuated with his vice, going to remarkable lengths to satiate its craving, even while recognising it as a foible he must try to keep it out of the view of his brother, Wick, and long-suffering girlfriend, Helen. Minor inconveniences like the fact he can barely sit through an opera featuring actors drinking fake wine barely make a dent in his alcoholic resolve. It is not until the six days that The Lost Weekend takes places over that a steady downward slide sinks him deeper than he ever has been before, dampening his carefree demeanour with enough spirits to finally quench his thirst.

A number of rings from the bottom of a bottle – a smart cutaway that economically tells the tale of one drunken night.
Tracking in on the rippling surface of alcohol, tempting and intoxicating us with its dazzling beauty.

Wilder is not typically one to make daring stylistic choices, but neither does he let his camera become a mere passive observer in this film, as he skilfully develops Don’s substance abuse and breakdown through several alcohol-related motifs. The Lost Weekend efficiently depicts one drunken night through a simple shot noting the many rings of condensation left on the bar by his drinks. In another composition, the alcohol itself ripples and reflects lights with an overhead angle that tantalisingly pushes forward with sultry temptation, and as Don wanders liquor stores looking for his next dose, Wilder smothers him behind rows of bottles lined up in the foreground, turning the mere shape of them into a visual cue prompting his own compulsion. This conceit pays off again later as well when the distorted shadow of a bottle he previously hid in a light fixture casts a recognisable shadow up on the ceiling, thereby ending that night’s desperate search for a drink.

The shape of bottles become motifs of temptation, carrying unsettling implications for Don every time they appear.

Paired with Billy Wilder’s sharp direction is one of Miklós Rózsa’s greatest movie scores, developing a dizzying theme that wavers and spirals in a string orchestra before being passed off to a shrill theremin, where it uneasily underscores Don’s drunken self-degradation. Like the wailing musical saw from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest thirty years later, there is a tragic quality to this melody, similarly seeking to understand the fragility of its cynical male protagonist. It is a testament to the development of Don’s character that we still hold onto some empathy for him even as he hits new lows, where he is driven to stealing purses, holding up whiskey stores, and exploiting romantic crushes. As he sets out to pawn off his typewriter, Wilder dissolves between tracking shots moving down city streets and the alcoholic fully prepared to sacrifice his livelihood and talent, and though we pity him immensely at this point, the narrative is far from done with its torment.

Long dissolves and tracking shots as Don walks groggily down this street, searching for relief.

A brief stint in an alcoholic’s ward marks the point at which The Lost Weekend begins to verge ever so slightly on horror, confronting Don with a frightening, raving patient who could very well be a future version of himself. As he watches in fear from his bed at the man being whisked away, the shadow of the hospital doors swing across his face, casting him in an agitated darkness. Hallucinations of bats burying into walls, killing mice, and spilling blood across his apartment plague his delirious mind, until he is finally driven to rock bottom where suicide seems to be the only escape.

At the climax of Don’s visit to the alcoholic’s ward, the hospital door dramatically swings its shadow across his face, casting him in darkness.

Perhaps it is Wilder’s marvellous genre dexterity which helps him smooth over the tonal shift that comes in the final minutes, offering Don a real chance at redemption and sobriety. In the hands of a less talented writer, the miracle of his typewriter finding its way back into his hands and Helen’s pep-talk might not seem like enough to undo everything that has taken place, but nevertheless there is a strong formal cohesion to in the conclusion’s mirrored bookends. Where we came into Don’s life with a long take floating from a New York panorama into his apartment window, we leave the same way, flashing back to that opening shot that now moves in reverse, accompanied by his voice dictating the words that will introduce his autobiographical novel. For Wilder to draw such a hopeful resolution from what is certainly among his darkest films is a truly impressive feat, though with a complicated character as richly drawn and sympathetic as Don Birnam, The Lost Weekend deserves nothing less.

Returning to this opening shot…
…in the closing shot. Wonderful form from Wilder here, and an excellent camera movement to match it.

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

Double Indemnity (1944)

Billy Wilder | 1hr 47min

There are few film noirs one could point to that typifies the genre more than Double Indemnity, where Billy Wilder’s gloriously expressionistic set pieces and passionately cynical writing evolves one man’s macabre curiosity into a hideous corruption of his soul. Fred MacMurray leads as insurance salesman Walter Neff, the smooth-talking protagonist whose licentious entanglement with Phyllis Dietrichson, the wife of one of his customers, proves to be the unravelling he always unconsciously harboured some desire for. Next to him, Barbara Stanwyck embodies the prototypical femme fatale in one of the great performances of the 1940s, delivering lines that are somehow both lustfully heated and ice cold at the same time. Together, both rattle off sizzling dialogue that only barely conceals the carnal attraction between the two paramours, playing on verbal repetitions and metaphors that practically beg for some sort of physical consummation.

I wonder if I know what you mean.”

“I wonder if you wonder.”

John F. Seitz masterfully shapes his low-key lighting to create these ravishing shots, shedding thin strips of light across his actors and sets.

But at its core, no matter how many times they profess their love or call each other “baby”, this shady relationship is not about sexual desire. Even thicker than the tension that bubbles through their romantic interactions is that which emerges in their partnership as co-conspirators, plotting the murder of Mr. Dietrichson to claim his life insurance money. Such immense wealth would allow them to run away and live happily together, though it does not take a great mind to see that this is not the ultimate dream for either of them.

For Phyllis, men are but disposable tools in her pursuit of luxury, and Neff is just one in a line of them, wedged between her late husband and Nino, her stepdaughter’s hot-headed boyfriend. Stanwyck is like an angelic poison here, framed in doorways of soft light while faking a conscience that wins the sympathy of others, or otherwise standing high up on balconies like a puppeteer slyly asserting her dominance over lovesick men.

Barbara Stanwyck swathed in soft, angelic lighting, ensnaring Fred MacMurray with her poisonous line deliveries and ice cold demeanour.

For our humble insurance salesman, the temptation is simply to prove a capability and intelligence that he cannot otherwise exercise in his ordinary life. “It was all tied up with something I’d been thinking about for years,” he wistfully ponders, recalling all those times he had seen customers caught out for lies on their insurance claims because of careless holes in their stories. To commit the perfect crime and escape the suspicion of his work friend, Keyes, and his inbuilt lie detector he calls his “little man” – that would be the ultimate validation of his supremacy. Within this scheme, Phyllis is nothing but an embodiment of his ego affirming everything he would like to believe about himself, deliberately letting him confuse his arrogance with love.

Though Wilder’s direction may be only secondary to his accomplishment in writing here, this ultimately means very little. Double Indemnity’s screenplay belongs among the best of film history, formally hinging its tightly wound narrative on Neff’s voiceover that dreamily slips us into a flashback and drives it along in rhythmic, pulpy bliss. Further cementing Double Indemnity as one of the greatest classic noirs is Wilder’s ability to match such visceral, imaginative writing with an expressionistic flair so perfectly in tune with his characters.

Chiaroscuro lighting is ridden all through Double Indemnity, but it is significantly announced right from the opening credits as this concealed figure hobbles towards the camera.
Light fixtures deftly worked into the mise-en-scène, partially obscuring the frame from this high angle.

Before we even know any of them by name, the opening credits introduces us to one in crutches, silhouetted against a white background and hobbling towards the camera. His face may be obscured, but we will later identify him as an injured Mr. Dietrichson heading towards his death – or is it actually Neff putting on the disguise of Phyllis’ late husband, gradually growing larger in the frame like an oil spill spreading outwards, until we are entirely consumed in his darkness? Such stunningly stark imagery can be found all through John Seitz’ shadow-heavy cinematography, incorporating lamps and ceiling lights into his mise-en-scène and shaping their dim glow with Venetian blinds that throw narrow strips of light across walls and faces, as Neff and Phyllis progressively sink deeper into the dark, bleak pit of their own corruption.

The association of Venetian blinds with film noir is typified here, letting light peek through in thin, sharp ribbons that tantalise our curiosity.

Additionally building out Double Indemnity’s tension is Wilder’s taut blocking, always considering the dramatic irony that connects the deceptions his characters create and the secrets they keep from others. A busy grocery store is the location where the two accomplices meet to plot their nefarious crime, standing side-by-side, hiding in plain sight behind packed shelves, and cutting themselves off from any possibility of physical flirtation. Later, Wilder crafts an indelible composition using the familiar geography of Neff’s apartment building, staging Phyllis behind an open door in the foreground while her lover stands on the other side, hiding her from Keyes who is off in the background. For all of this screenplay’s efficient storytelling, the sharp layering of the mise-en-scène is also working to subtly develop its characters and narrative, letting their treachery take full form.

Tense staging in this complex character interaction, underscoring the heavy dramatic irony.
Hiding in plain sight within this packed grocery store, taking both out of their comfort zones.

Of course, this lifestyle of deceit and depravity is not one that comes naturally to Neff though, who is acting more on his own insatiable curiosity than anything else. Much like Phyllis herself, the smell of honeysuckle that lingers outside her house turns from a sweet, alluring scent into something he associates with danger, and even their repeated promise of carrying out this murder “straight down the line” comes back to bite him when he starts wanting to pull out. By this point, all romantic chemistry has dissipated between the two. As Neff divulges in his voiceover, he knew right at the moment he committed the murder that he was going to be caught out, if not because of any slip-ups, then because of his own guilt.

Most of all, it is the shame he feels in fooling Keyes that gets to him the most, as while his colleague’s instincts tell him early on that there is something fishy with Phyllis’ insurance claim, the unquestionable trust he places in Neff clouds his better judgement. Still, all through the murder and cover-up, his “little man” remains the single largest threat to Neff’s insidious lie, proving itself to be a clever character conceit from Wilder. In a way, it is Keyes’ perceptive mind which motivates his workmate to commit this crime in the first place, as his assertion that there is no such thing as a perfect murder is taken as a challenge.

Venetian blinds in the workplace…
…and Venetian blinds on the train. Absolute commitment to an aesthetic from Wilder.

If there is a love story here in Double Indemnity, it is ultimately not about Neff and his femme fatale, but rather Neff and his best friend who he sets out to get one up over. Throughout the film, Wilder develops a loving motif between the two that sees Neff produce a match for his friend and light his cigarette for him, packing their relationship with affectionate intimacy in this simple action. It is this gesture which he also returns to in the film’s closing seconds, as the extended flashback comes to an end and Keyes sorrowfully discovers his friend’s wrongdoing. True to their relationship, their final exchange is part banter, and part profession of their sentimental feelings, transcending whatever wrongs have come between then.

“The guy you were looking for was too close. He was right across the desk from you.”

“Closer than that, Walter.”

“Love you too.”

As Neff lies on the ground bleeding out, it is now he who searches for a match in his coat, and Keyes who sweetly reciprocates the gesture. For all the fatalistic pessimism that roils through Double Indemnity, Wilder delicately polishes it with a light warmth in these quiet interactions, wistfully recalling a moral innocence worth savouring before it inevitably fades away into a dark, bitter void.

Formally paying off on this character motif to end the film, sweetly reciprocating the affectionate gesture.

Double Indemnity is currently streaming on Binge, and is available to rent or buy on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.

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.